We’re losing Chinatown to skyscrapers

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I was amazed to learn that a 22-story building was proposed in the Chinatown Special District, an area listed on both the National and National Registers of Historic Places.

Renderings from the proposed Kekaulike senior housing project show a modern, imposing building more than twice the height of the 80-foot height limit in the land use ordinances for this neighborhood in Chinatown, and five times higher than the 40-foot height limit in historic core Chinatown.

The Kekaulike Tower, if approved, would join several other affordable housing towers encroaching on Chinatown. In addition to spoiling the character and human scale of this neighborhood, the proposed new building would impose itself on the makai side of Chinatown, permanently disrupting its visual and historical connection to Honolulu Harbor. (See the rendering by SVA Architects above.)

The Historic Hawaii Foundation, in its comments to the neighborhood council opposing the Kekaulike skyscraper, explained that the project would involve the demolition of a building of historic significance and that its “proposed scale and lack of compatibility with the Chinatown National Historic District are of great concern. “

Yet despite opposition from HHF and the community, Honolulu City Council could vote to approve a 201H resolution exempting the Kekaulike skyscraper from the various LUO construction requirements for Chinatown, including height restrictions, as it is an affordable housing project.

There is no doubt that the need for affordable housing is great, but how many affordable housing towers can Chinatown, a small community of less than 1 square mile, support? Chinatown already has four of these buildings. When does this historic district become unrecognizable?

To make matters worse, a hotel has also been proposed for Chinatown. The Chinatown Hotel renderings show a modern high-rise building immediately adjacent to the Kekaulike high-rise project overlooking Honolulu Harbor.

If the two projects are ultimately approved, these two towering structures on the Nimitz Expressway, between Maunakea and Kekaulike streets, would create a barrier several blocks long separating Chinatown from the port.

The renderings of the Terra Massa Capital Chinatown Hotel and Ikenakea Development show a high-rise building adjacent to the proposed Kekaulike Senior Living high-rise building overlooking Honolulu Harbor.
Renderings of Terra Massa Capital’s Chinatown Hotel and Ikenakea Development show a high-rise building adjacent to the Kekaulike Senior Living high-rise project overlooking Honolulu Harbor.

Both projects require a state-mandated environmental assessment and are subject to review by the State Historic Preservation Division, which is part of the Department of Lands and Natural Resources.

However, decisions about whether or not to lift restrictions and approve a project rest with city or state agencies and city council. However, public opposition during the review process can impact their decision making.

“Uniquely diversified”

We must not lose Chinatown to tall buildings. This irreplaceable historic area traces Honolulu’s rich history from the mid-1800s, when whalers docked in a bustling Honolulu port through the many decades of immigrant ancestors from China, Japan, the Philippines and the United States. Portugal to work in the sugar cane plantations.

The Chinatown on the port side has become a refuge for many, a place of gathering, preservation of cultures, education of families and development of businesses.

Unique in diversity to this day, Chinatown is a living link to our past with its distinctive late 1800s and early 1900s architecture, buildings of historic significance, two and three story sidewalks, small shops, hidden courtyards and open air markets.

Yet despite its historical significance, some are abandoning Chinatown. For years, the community has faced crushing homelessness and high crime rates, both of which have contributed to its economic instability. At this point, even grossly inappropriate high-rise developments may seem preferable to some to leave neglected areas of the neighborhood unused.

Yet such short-sighted “fixes” will rob us and future generations of what could be a vibrant and historically preserved Chinatown.

If we take bold steps to meet the challenges of Chinatown, the community can bounce back, reigniting the collective will to protect its unique character and architecture. A restored Chinatown will motivate current and new businesses to revitalize this special neighborhood – from repainting a weathered storefront to restoring and repurposing the many vacant historic buildings into thriving businesses, service organizations and cultural hubs. Residents and visitors alike will reclaim its cherished streets, strengthening small businesses.

Chinatown is a living link to our past with its distinctive architecture.

Oahu, an island of skyscrapers, sleek hotels, and shopping malls, has so few places of authentic historical value. Chinatown is one of them and we must preserve it. As stated on the Hawaii Historic Foundation website, “Preservation is about deciding what is important, figuring out how to protect it, and passing an appreciation for what has been saved to the next generation.”

It is essential to preserve Chinatown to stop the development of skyscrapers there. Decision-makers and citizens alike must act now to save this irreplaceable community, a precious link that connects us to our past.

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