RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
"As wonderful as First Friday is, we'd love to balance that attention out for the rest of the month." Joey Wolpert,
Owner of rRed Elephant Cafe on Bethel Street, sits at one of the tables set up outside the shop
Chinatown: Getting beyond First Friday
Some businesses are depending on First Friday to keep them afloat, a merchant says
STORY SUMMARY »
First of two parts
More than a year after the city's Chinatown Summit at Hawaii Theatre, the neighborhood is finally emerging out of its slumber.
The arts district is now home to dozens of spaces filled with new galleries, shops and restaurants -- while the First Friday artwalk has taken off, attracting a crowd of 2,500 every month.
Approximately three-quarters of a million dollars in grants and funding also have been dedicated to the neighborhood for a range of projects, from generating more events to restoring the N. Hotel Street facade.
A project offering free wi-fi recently was launched, stretching from River Street to Fort Street Mall a year after it was first announced.
But many merchants agree the neighborhood needs more foot traffic on days other than First Friday, and that challenges still remain.
Many properties still sit empty and dilapidated, while second-story loft developments -- eased by a rule change three years ago -- never took off.
Two doctoral students at the University of Hawaii, meanwhile, played out a possible scenario of a Chinatown gentrified by Starbucks, T.G.I. Fridays and luxury lofts. That very scenario is what some old-timers and artists, like Roy Venters, do not want.
Chinatown has received a number of state and federal grants to boost economic development.
» Hotel Street facade: $250,000 appropriated by the state Legislature (award has yet to be released)
» Preserve America Grant: $300,000 ($150,000 from National Parks Service, to be matched by the city)
» Hawaii Arts Alliance Grant: $125,000 to develop another arts incubator in Chinatown. U.S. Economic Development Administration.
» HTA Grants: $30,000 for events & festivals
» Bright Ideas Mini-Awards: $40,000 awarded to 10 winners for community change ideas. Ford Foundation, local banks.
Source: Honolulu Culture & Arts District Association
FULL STORY »
More than a year after the mayor's Chinatown Summit, the arts district has become home to more than a dozen new shops, galleries and restaurants. First Friday, the popular gallery artwalk that started four years ago, has taken flight, bringing in 2,500 visitors in one evening. More than 40 businesses are listed on the artwalk map today.
Sure enough, the neighborhood has undergone a transformation.
However, most merchants in the area seem to agree that the Chinatown arts district needs to get beyond First Friday.
"It should be every Friday, not just First Friday," said restaurateur Dave Stewart, who started three restaurants (Indigo Eurasian Cuisine, Bar 35 and Brasserie Du Vin) in the district, with a fourth in the works. "I think we've still got a long way to go because we still don't have that critical mass."
Stewart said some businesses are leaning on First Friday to keep them afloat for the entire month.
The Hawaii Theatre's renovation, though better, still doesn't draw enough traffic -- and increasing competition is coming from the renaissance of Waikiki.
He's not too optimistic about new high-rise condos like Capitol Place and The Pinnacle adding much to the traffic -- even if their brochures do market the arts district. Thousands of residents already live in the area, he said, but do they go out? Apparently not.
Joey Wolpert, co-owner of the rRed Elephant Cafe on Bethel Street agreed.
"As wonderful as First Friday is, we'd love to balance that attention out for the rest of the month," he said.
In an effort to do that, rRed Elephant is keeping its doors open until 9 every night, offering music. He hopes more businesses will join him with extended hours, and believes if enough do so, the area will become a destination spot.
There also have been efforts to launch a Second Saturday, and there are arts talks on Third Thursdays, according to Rich Richardson, creative director of the Arts at Marks Garage, a project of the Hawaii Arts Alliance.
He feels that the arts district is radiating outward as more art galleries and businesses begin to set up shop -- with more potential to grow.
RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Sandra Pohl, owner of the Louis Pohl Gallery at the corner of N. Hotel Street and Nuuanu Avenue, said a rent increase is part of the price to pay for improvement in Chinatown.
It is rolling out along Nuuanu Avenue, all the way to where McClain Auctions
has set up shop, just a block away from two Irish pubs, and down Bethel Street, revived by the new Hawaii Theatre, and a number of new restaurants and fashion retail businesses.
N. Hotel Street is the most interesting hub of transformation -- video arcades and longtime dives like the Smith's Union Bar now co-exist with Into, an upscale boutique, as well as trendy nightspots Bar 35 and Next Door, and will be home to another new club and Stewart's newest restaurant, La Rhumba.
The street has been earmarked for a $250,000 facade restoration grant to fix its fading and crumbling brick, though the funds have yet to be released.
Add a yoga studio, hair salon, day spas and wine shop to the mix.
But the transformation has been slow. Since the city held an economic summit in June 2006, progress has been like molasses.
True, it resulted in a new merchants association that has brought a number of businesses together for marketing. A group of 16 merchants in the district recently bought ads in the Waikiki Trolley magazine, which resulted in two stops near the Chinatown arts district.
More police patrol the area on foot, helping to clear the streets from the drug dealings and prostitutes of yesteryear, although the homeless continue to nap near the waterfall by Hawaii Theatre.
A pilot project by Tri-net Solutions to provide free wi-fi across Chinatown recently got up and running -- from River Street to Fort Street Mall. Mayor Mufi Hannemann said he prioritizes the wi-fi project as a "need to have," and not a "nice to have."
But the delay is due, in part, to stagnant, dilapidated properties.
A zone change to encourage second-story loft developments never took off. Most of the second-floor properties continue to sit empty, or to be used as storage, while other storefronts remain vacant.
Richardson believes a key to taking the arts district to the next level will be to attract more residents to the neighborhood. Efforts are currently under way to transform the historical Mendonca Building on Smith Street into a live-work loft.
When that happens, he believes it will become a magnet, drawing more artistic and creative types to the area.
Yet a slow pace of change is welcomed by those who are also resistant to too much change in the neighborhood.
Artist and studio owner Roy Venters is an old-timer in the Chinatown arts district -- he was around 20 years ago, before it evolved into the arts district.
Venters worries that the place may become too elitist as it is groomed and tailored for a more upscale clientele. Already, he says, it's lost a little bit of its personal neighborhood warmth.
Also, he said, he hopes businesses like the Smith's Union Bar and Ke Kai's won't be kicked out. After all, they were here before everyone else.
"I don't want the seedy element to go away," he said. "My concerns are that it's not going to be Chinatown any more, that it's all going to be high-end." Likewise, Richardson at Arts said he hopes the arts district develops into an "urban counterpoint" to Waikiki.
"We want to make sure we don't chase away all the independent stores, the mom-and-pops and lei shops with rising rents," he said. "We want to keep the character of the marketplaces ...There's an authenticity we want to maintain."
With the change comes an inevitable increase in rent.
Sandra Pohl, owner of the Louis Pohl gallery, said a rent increase is part of the price to pay for an improvement to the neighborhood. A six-year tenant in the neighborhood, she remembers the days when drug dealings in the area were a problem.
"The rent has gone up, but that's the price you pay," she said. "If it's not clean and safe, then people won't come down. Six years ago, it was very lean, and sales were scarce."
Pohl says daily traffic has tripled or quadrupled since the Chinatown summit last summer -- and that more local residents are buying art. She is also seeing more high-end shoppers at her gallery.
She and a number of restaurants and shops will be holding extended hours until 8 p.m. Thursdays from the middle of this month until Dec. 20 with hopes of getting a boost in holiday shopping.
Wolpert of rRed Elephant welcomes more upscale businesses in the area.
He eventually envisions the downtown Honolulu office crowd walking to the arts district after work -- and residents coming to the rRed Elephant on a Sunday morning to read the newspaper, with a coffee and bagel.
COURTESY FOUND FUTURES
Two doctoral students at the University of Hawaii put up this fake poster, declaring that Starbucks was coming to Chinatown. It was all part of a project in which they wanted to gauge the community's reaction to the possible scenario of a more gentrified Chinatown.
Futurists set up fake scenario
Two University of Hawaii doctoral students played out the greatest fears for some merchants and residents of the Chinatown arts district at this month's First Friday.
The fear: Gentrification of the arts district with the arrival of a Starbucks, T.G.I. Friday's, American Apparel and luxury lofts at the Mendonca Building.
Upcoming futurist events|
» Oct. 23: Alternative futures arts exhibit, Arts at Marks
» Nov. 17: Workshop discussing future of Chinatown, Arts at Marks, 12 to 4 p.m. Free and open to the public, limited to 50 spaces. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.
They put up a mock "Starbucks coming soon" sign at the Stack Building, on the corner of Nuuanu Avenue and Pauahi Street, as well as a banner advertising $2.1 million lofts atop the Mendonca Building.
A staged group of fake protesters handed out fliers and post cards protesting "the next Waikiki," referring the public to two fake Web sites --- one for the activists at www.savechinatown.org and one for the fictitious Dubai-based Aloha Land and Water Investment Group Inc. at www.investaloha.com.
It was part public installation art, part social experiment, and only the first of more scenarios to come.
The intention, according to Stuart Candy and Jake Dunagan, was to manifest a possible future for the district, and simulate a real scenario to get business owners, residents and others engaged in a discussion about what they would like the neighborhood to become.
Their goal was to get a conversation started -- and the dialogue has begun.
Reactions were both emotional and intellectual. Many were fooled by the hoax, some angry, some apathetic and yet others amused.
The pair fielded a range of public responses, from those who were perfectly appalled at the corporate invasion, to those who welcomed Starbucks as a sign of economic achievement.
Some were happy just to hear that a tenant was finally moving into the Stack Building, which has been empty for years.
Joey Wolpert, co-owner of the rRed Elephant, said he certainly would not have been happy to get competition from Starbucks a block away. Yet he also has seen neighborhoods in Toronto where they co-exist with independent coffee shops.
The fictitiously subversive nature of the investments were what angered those in the neighborhood the most, according to Candy.
Eventually, Candy and Dunagan, both Ph.D. candidates at the Hawaii Center for Future Studies (which falls under political sciences), hope to use the insight they gained for an audio walking tour set in Chinatown 2036 -- which is being funded in part by the Bright Ideas grants given out last summer.
All commercial decisions are based on expectations, said Dunagan, as well as the assumptions that underpin them.
"Foresight (thinking and planning in terms of multiple possible futures) is clearly needed in the Hawaii business community," he said.
"For instance, the Superferry controversy highlights what a want of foresight can lead to in a commercial setting."
Candy said the pair's motivation as futurists is to encourage businesses, to think ahead more systematically -- and to go outside of the box.