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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, September 4, 2003

Board to hear plan on expanding special district, easing loft rules

 •  Map: Chinatown special districts, existing and expanded

By James Gonser
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

The city has created a plan that would expand the Chinatown Special District as well as preserve the view plane and make it easier for building owners to create artists' lofts throughout the historic area.

At a glance

• Who: The Downtown Neighborhood Board

• What: Will hear a presentation on the proposed amendments to the Chinatown Special District.

• When: 7 tonight

• Where: Pauahi Community Center, 171 N. Pauahi St.

The proposal is seen as the next step in a plan to transform Chinatown into a vibrant community filled with sidewalk cafés, artists' galleries and live music at night. Creating loft space and the residential component it would bring to the area is seen as an essential part of the process.

"It's a proven method throughout the whole nation; in depressed areas of downtown they convert the second floors of building to loft living," said Jack Frick, owner of downtown art gallery Studio. "Not in a fancy way, but in a way artists can afford."

City planning and permitting director Eric Crispin will give a presentation on the proposal at the Downtown Neighborhood Board meeting tonight. After the plan is taken to community groups, it will be presented to the Planning Commission next month and then to the City Council for approval, he said.

Chinatown's Special District status requires planners to keep the district's low-rise historic character in mind when making improvements or changes. Parking and access restrictions placed on rentals have made it expensive for a landowner to convert a property from business to loft. Meanwhile, city rules allow multifamily use, but don't provide for a single-family dwelling above a business, so a variance has been required to create a loft occupied by just one person or couple.

The district amendments ease parking restrictions and allow one- and two-family lofts above a business.

Many of the upper floors of the area's historic buildings, some more than 100 years old, sit empty and the city hopes the new rules allowing lofts will be an incentive for redeveloping and renovating the urban area.

"The feedback we've gotten from the community is that right now the rules for Chinatown are too restrictive," Crispin said. "That's why you have still a lot of underdeveloped or abandoned buildings. There are other places that have allowed redevelopment of their historic core areas with loft-type places, and those have been very successful."

Frick, who built loft space above his art gallery, said there is a huge demand for lofts not only for artists but for people who work downtown and would like to live in a district filled with cultural and artistic activities.

The expanded special district would be about 20 acres of land west of the current district including 'A'ala Park, the historic O'ahu Railway & Land Co. station and the Tong Fat Co. Ltd. building at North King and Beretania streets.

Crispin said the building height limit in the expansion area will be reduced from 200 feet to 80 feet in the mauka portion for the expansion near the OR&L building and from 150 feet to 80 feet in the makai portion where the 'A'ala parking lot is. 'A'ala Park will be reduced from 25 feet to zero feet simply to require that any building in the park would need a special variance to build, he said.

"We view the parcels 'ewa of Chinatown, especially those still undeveloped and along with 'A'ala Park, as being central to the gateway experience into Chinatown," Crispin said. "The idea is as you approach Chinatown and the business district, you want to preserve the vistas coming in from Nimitz Highway."

Crispin said dropping the height to 80 feet is a much more appropriate scale of development for the area. He said the Harbor Village project on River Street is a good example of what the city would like to see.

"This expansion would not preclude development; it just makes sure the development that does occur is sensitive to the cultural and design character that Chinatown does have," Crispin said.

Business owners and residents have been working for years to create the Honolulu Culture & Arts District in the downtown/Chinatown area. Frick said with the creation of the Fort Street Mall Business Improvement District, the expansion of the Weed & Seed crime-fighting area and the popular First Fridays art receptions, there is a lot of momentum to improve the area.

"It's been tried before, but there are a lot more people involved now," Frick said. "I see it as an international destination like a SoHo district (in New York). It would be for people more interested in arts and culture and things like that."

Reach James Gonser at jgonser@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2431.

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