Mayor floats his ideas for Chinatown
Groups are urged to work together and are promised city help
Chinatown will get a new transitional housing facility to get homeless off the streets, districtwide wireless Internet capability and a second arts incubation site, under plans by Mayor Mufi Hannemann to help further the historic district's rebirth.
Hannemann convened his "Chinatown Summit" yesterday at the Hawaii Theatre with a call for a grass-roots revitalization of the district that is less reliant on heavy city involvement, but then unveiled several of his own proposals to kick-start the effort.
"I want you to hold my administration's feet to the fire to make sure these things get done," he told the gathering of about 300 people.
The city plans to find a developer to build transitional housing on a city-owned parcel on River Street near Vineyard Boulevard now being used for restaurant and retail establishments, Hannemann said.
Specifics are still far off, but Hannemann said current commercial tenants of the building had been informed they might have to move out.
Homelessness, along with drug use and other illegal activities, is routinely blamed for discouraging more visitors -- and hence more money -- from flowing into Chinatown and fueling its rebirth.
The city also is close to sealing a partnership with Internet service provider Earthlink, which would install the hardware and technology -- possibly within city-owned streetlights -- for free Wi-Fi Internet access.
The pilot project would last a year, after which Earthlink or other service providers could bid to take over the network, said Gordon Bruce, director of the city's Office of Information Technology.
Bruce said the cost of setting up the grid is "all on Earthlink's dime" and opens up a wide range of possible uses.
Besides free residential Internet use, small businesses in the area could explore online retail opportunities, and the Honolulu Police Department's network of Chinatown street security cameras, now land-line-based, and radio-based communications could tap into the system, he said.
The city also could use it as the basis for possible future "smart" parking meters and other high-tech ideas, he said.
"It just opens up a whole plethora of options for the private sector as well as the city," Bruce said.
Hannemann has made Chinatown's recovery from decades as a sleazy marketplace for drugs and prostitution -- while still preserving its unique social, architectural and cultural flavor -- one of his signature causes.
The summit served as a pep talk for the neighborhood's diverse immigrant, arts and business communities to work together toward that goal rather than expect the city to spend its way there.
A study of Chinatown by marketing consultancy Bedrock released yesterday indicated that chronic issues of homelessness, unsanitary conditions and stubborn crime need to be dealt with before the area can take off.
Though most visitors and residents rated Chinatown's shopping and dining highly, Bedrock's survey of around 400 people found it needs more signage, better parking and transportation, improved public safety and public facilities like restrooms and an information center.
"A developer won't want to invest in the area unless they know that more and more people are going to be coming down there to spend their money," said Bedrock's director, Dexter Suzuki.
Part of the problem might be that Chinatown's "message" is just not getting out. Suzuki recommended a comprehensive marketing and advertising plan for Chinatown to "brand" the area, raise its profile and dispel some myths.
He noted that both residents and visitors got most of their information about the area by word of mouth and that scarce parking was cited as a major problem despite more than 1,600 stalls in the area for public use.
On the arts, Hannemann said his administration is willing to offer city-owned real estate in the area, if necessary, for a second arts incubator to complement the ARTS at Marks Garage.
As a city councilman, Hannemann introduced a resolution that led to the establishment of the ARTS, which provides an exhibit venue and other guidance to emerging visual and performing artists.
The new site is needed to handle excess demand, said Marilyn Cristofori, executive director of the Hawaii Arts Alliance, which operates the incubator.
"We'll have no problem filling out another space," she said.
A few attendees were not quite sure what to make of the summit and Hannemann's rather vague call to action.
Businessman Wing Tek Lum said he was still "digesting" it but had hoped to hear ideas from the city on providing more residential housing for extended working immigrant families.
Though homelessness and other problems are common areas of concern, he remains skeptical that Chinatown can work together, as envisioned by Hannemann.
The Chinese areas on the district's Ewa side and the growing arts-based community on the Diamond Head end are "two different worlds," he said.
"The Chinese people here don't buy paintings at the galleries," he said. "To say we all have the same concerns and should all work together would make for a very boring community. One of the most exciting things about Chinatown is its diversity."
Myrtle Choan was more upbeat. A Realtor who grew up with seven siblings in her father's Chinatown noodle factory, she welcomed the mayor's focus on the district and expected many to heed his call.
"There are a lot of very smart and understanding people in Chinatown, and I think it will keep moving in the right direction," she said.
GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Mayor Mufi Hannemann met with community leaders and residents of Chinatown during a break at yesterday's Chinatown Summit at the Hawaii Theatre.
THE MAYOR'S PLAN
Mayor Mufi Hannemann's plans for Chinatown include:
» Establishing a free Wi-Fi or wireless broadband backbone in a partnership with Internet service provider Earthlink.
» Offering city land on River Street for a transitional housing facility for the homeless.
» Helping establish a second arts incubator, possibly at a city-owned site.
» Pushing for more nighttime events like First Friday to increase foot traffic in the area.
» Taking full advantage of federal historical preservation funds available under Chinatown's recent designation as a Preserve America neighborhood.
» Expanding the city's annual dragon boat race in October to draw international competitors.
» Deepening Honolulu's sister-city relationship with Zhongshan, China.
The Ford Foundation and several local banks are offering $4,000 grants for ideas to help improve Chinatown and the adjacent arts district.
Who: Anyone is eligible.
What: Submit a one-page concept paper with an idea to improve and transform the community. Ideas can deal with health and safety, parking or any other issues.
Where: Submit ideas to the Hawaii Arts Alliance at the ARTS at Marks Garage, 1159 Nuuanu Ave., or e-mail email@example.com.
When: Next Friday at 6 p.m. is the deadline (a help session for applicants is scheduled at the ARTS at Marks Garage on Sunday, 4-6 p.m.).
Call the ARTS at Marks Garage at 521-2903 for more information.