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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, August 12, 2004

Loft apartments now allowed in Chinatown

By James Gonser
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

Historic Chinatown moved a step closer to becoming a more vibrant residential district yesterday when the City Council gave final go-ahead to rules allowing loft apartments.

Hank Taufaasau, owner of Hank's Cafe on Nu'uanu Street, said he will look into converting the second floor of his business into a loft as soon as possible.

"One of the ways to clean up an area is to have more residents," Taufaasau said. "To me, the key in cleaning up is you've got to have people who live there, not close up, go to the bank and head home to some place else."

The bill, approved unanimously, now moves to Mayor Jeremy Harris who will sign the measure, making it law.

"The next step is for the private sector — the building owners, the developers and the people that want to live in Chinatown — to go in and renovate the building," said Eric Crispin, city director for the Department of Planning and Permitting. "The notion is to allow one- and two-family dwellings where they were not allowed before. We are going to have a lot of interest from young professionals that live within walking distance of the financial district, some seniors who are essentially empty nesters and like to be near services, shopping, restaurants and art galleries."

Downtown/Chinatown residents and a group called the Honolulu Culture & Arts District have worked for years to amend Chinatown's Special District requirements to allow lofts that would provide space for artists to work. City rules have allowed multifamily use of buildings in the district, but not a single-family dwelling above a business. The bill approved yesterday eases the land-use rules.

Business owners, artists and residents hope to transform the district into a vibrant community filled with sidewalk and courtyard cafes, bars with live music at night, artists creating works in loft studios, galleries along tree-lined streets and pedestrian malls filled with evening strollers.

Using the upper floors of the area's historic buildings, some more than 100 years old, they hope to build lofts for sale or rent. When they were first built, the properties were typically used by families that ran a shop downstairs and lived above. Those businesses are mostly gone, and the upstairs spaces are often left empty.

Crispin said the concept of lofts has worked in other areas including Denver, where the historic center with old brick buildings was crime-ridden and dirty.

"Today (the Denver district) is one of the hottest areas for restaurants and lofts," he said. "We have every reason to believe that is what will happen here."

Other efforts to improve Chinatown include the monthly First Friday art gallery walks, business owners banding together to fight crime and city efforts to improve sidewalks, parks and street lighting.

"If (property owners) truly buy into the model of developing a creative economy, and using arts and culture to revitalize this neighborhood, it can work," said Kim Coffee-Isaak, managing director at The ARTS at Marks Garage, an art gallery. "It has happened all over the country."

Coffee-Isaak said the next step is to identify the owners of these properties and talk them into renovating. She also plans to gather artists together for a meeting and show land owners there is interest in the idea.

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