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Downtown Honolulu: Signs of Life

Noe Tanigawa / HPR
Kai nu?u o Kanaloa, or “Kai” for short, is a wall sized installation in the new Central Pacific Bank headquarters in downtown Honolulu. The piece was designed by an international team and fabricated in Hawai'i. The blue light bars are in constant motion, ";s:3

Downtown Honolulu is not the same place it was a year ago. Bishop Street bustling with professionals and office workers and daylong traffic on Fort Street Mall are a thing of the past for now. Still, signs of a new future downtown are emerging.

Credit Noe Tanigawa
Bar Podmore, a new venture by Chef Anthony Rush and partner/wife Katherine Nomura, is due to open in the lava rock Podmore Building at Alakea and Merchant.

Downtown stalwart, Don Murphy of Murphy's Bar and Grill says his customers have been loyal, his landlord has been generous, and the PPP saved his business, as it has so many others. Still, business is down 30-40%, and Murphy calls the drop in street activity, the lack office workers, disastrous for storefronts around him.


"Oh there's a lot of them that are struggling, a few that have closed. But it's amazing, I can't understand it, there's a lot of places opening up now."


Commercial real estate consultant Andy Friedlander says results may take 2-3 years to be felt, but key developments point to life after the pandemic. He says a prime property on Fort Street Mall between Hotel and King is in play.


"There's a transaction in escrow right now for what used to be called the superblock, next to Walmart. It's a bunch of old buildings that are two or three stories tall. I'm not at liberty to announce what's going on, but it's going to have a major impact on downtown, in a positive direction."


Friedlander says Duane Kurisu could be an agent for change downtown. 


"Kurisu just bought the old Pantheon Building. That's also going to become more valuable depending on what happens makai of that building. He did a good thing."


1132 Bishop, which abuts Fort Street Mall near Beretania is in the process of converting from offices to 500 residential units, aimed at moderate incomes. Friedlander expects increased retail and pedestrian activity as that conversion progresses. He points to plans for the Remington College complex on Bishop Street. Those buildings will be renovated for a Marriott Hotel in the next two years. 

Friedlander expects the low rises on the 'Ewa side of Bishop above Hotel to remain largely unchanged.

"Those buildings are all independently owned and I think they're all going to stay there."


Friedlander says Alakea Street, a sleeper in recent years, is seeing some activity at the corner of King Street.  points to the ma uka corner of Alakea and King Streets.


"Central Pacific Bank just had a major remodel of their lower levels. It's very exciting because it's opened up and created a wonderful friendly environment."


Central Pacific Bank, CPB, has just completed a major remodel. CPB Chief Marketing Officer Kevin Dahlstrom says they're in the middle of a transformation to a "digital first" age. 


"We wanted something that would signal the change that we're making. I'm a big believer in the power of art to really create emotion and signal change."


CPB's new lobby features a 16 foot sculpture of cascading light bars. Created by an international design team, the lights respond to tidal changes measured by buoys off O'ahu's North Shore.


"Of our ground floor level, probably 75% of the space is reserved for art or for community spaces. But there's a method to that madness."


Dahlstrom says with banking online, physical spaces can be more about serving the community and interacting with your brand. There are coffee, beer,  and co-working currently, with yoga and meet-ups of various kinds under consideration. 


Ma kai of King street on Alakea at Merchant, is the Podmore Building, a distinctive two story lava rock structure. Anthony Rush, one of the partners at Senia, is opening Bar Podmore there with his wife and business partner Katherine Nomura. The theme: "Brunch by day, cocktails by night."


In Chinatown, Friedlander pointed to Maile Meyer's purchase of the Pegge Hopper building on Nu'uanu last year as a positive sign for the neighborhood, along with the Downtown Art Center opening in Chinatown Gateway Plaza. The Wo Fat renovation is going through permitting, Friedlander says, and the Marks Garage property is up for sale. 

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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