Fixing up Chinatown should not destroy its authenticity
The city will hold a special meeting to gather strategies for revitalize Chinatown.
WHATEVER its problems with crime and ill repute, the appeal of Honolulu's Chinatown district is its authenticity. Unlike other areas in the city, it is largely without the simulated atmosphere that so often results from urban renewal projects.
Enhancing the district while maintaining its distinctive character will be a difficult balance to achieve. City officials, land owners, businesses and the public should resist churning under the genuine for yet another Disneyland.
Improving Chinatown has long been a goal and the city, beginning with a "Chinatown Summit" Thursday, will attempt to jump-start a revitalization that began when Hawaii Theatre was rescued from razing in the mid-1980s by citizens who recognized its historic value.
In the decade since the theater's reopening, the area has seen a number of its old buildings refurbished and an arts scene blossom. At the same time, hundreds of small businesses have kept the flow of commerce going. Many are unique, serving an evolving community of immigrants and longtime residents who appreciate individuality over the ubiquity of chain stores, designer boutiques and franchised restaurants.
What has been missing is a supportive residential population. Though there are a number of high-rise condo buildings in the downtown fringe of Chinatown, residential options are limited.
The district would be ideal for much-needed moderate-income housing for families as well as singles. Public transportation, jobs and services are easily accessible. A community presence would make the district less prone to criminal elements.
The city, which allows residences in upper floors of low-rise commercial buildings in the district, should consider tax credits to help property owners deal with the costs of conversion and meeting historic district requirements.
Chinatown should remain an area that cultivates small businesses that have been pushed out as upscale development takes hold in other areas. It could serve as an example of a "live, work and play" community.
Chinatown should not be transformed solely or primarily as another tourist destination, another option to Waikiki that, but for "aloha" signs and coconut trees, has become almost indistinguishable from tourism settings elsewhere. Moreover, many visitors to Hawaii have become more discerning, wanting to experience the islands in context rather than in scripted locales.
There are many obstacles, not the least of which is the homeless people that populate Chinatown. However, none are insurmountable if city officials and the public have the will to carry through.