Friday, May 30, 2008

Chinatown not loft-friendly: Study finds buildings ill-suited, costs high, owners unenthusiastic

Chinatown not loft-friendly
Study finds buildings ill-suited, costs high, owners unenthusiastic
May 30, 2008

By mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

Four years after the City Council voted to allow loft apartments in Chinatown for the first time since World War II, a new study on why so few residential lofts have actually been created recommends more incentives for landowners, including property tax exemptions.

It also says the housing stock in Chinatown is ill-suited to the creation of affordable lofts for artists, since many of the buildings are small and would need considerable work to be suitable for residential use. It suggests looking instead to nearby Iwilei or Kaka'ako for buildings to house upper-floor residential lofts.

The study, conducted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, surveyed landowners and artists — presumably the population most likely to take advantage of lofts — and also looked at conditions in Chinatown to figure out why more upper-floor spaces haven't been converted to residential use.

The report concluded the economics of turning second- and third-story spaces into lofts just doesn't pencil out for many landowners, especially given the high prices they can get for upper-floor office space without investing any money.

The study, released today, says other big barriers to creating lofts include a "lack of housing leadership" and no apparent agreement on Chinatown's future, along with regulatory hurdles for landowners.

The study says the only significant loft project that appears to be under way in Chinatown is at the Mendonca Building, where owners Ernie and JoDee Hunt are planning to invest about $400,000 to renovate upper-floor space for 10 lofts for artists. The affordable units will open this year.

The study said that, "It is unclear whether the redevelopment of the Mendonca Building is just one willing property owner, or a true symbol of change. There does not appear to be a consensus among Chinatown property owners that housing is a good use for their buildings. In fact, several owners specifically indicated that they preferred commercial tenants."

an exception to rule

Ernie Hunt, co-owner of Mendonca, agreed that residential lofts aren't a perfect fit for all Chinatown landowners. He said he wanted to put in the lofts because he believes having artists living in Chinatown will help the community.

He also expects the venture to make economic sense, eventually.

"We're doing it for the art community," he said.

Setting up lofts in Chinatown was seen as a key way of revitalizing the community back in 2004, when the City Council approved regulatory changes that would allow landowners to set up residential spaces above ground-level businesses. Many still see residential lofts as a major revitalization tool.

benefits of residents

Ed Korybski, the executive director of the Culture and Arts District Association in Chinatown, said more people living in Chinatown would help reduce crime and increase community pride.

"The biggest benefit is so that you have more eyeballs on the street," he said. "If you live there and you see something disreputable happening, you're likely to call the police."

The association asked the National Trust for Historic Preservation for the lofts study. Korybski said it's unclear where the association will go from here, but at least it has a clear idea of the issues involved.

The 41-page report makes several recommendations on how to encourage upper-floor residential living in Chinatown, including offering tax exemptions to property owners, setting up a city or private "one-stop shop" where people can get information on the regulatory issues involved in offering lofts, and coordinating the efforts of different agencies to promote loft living.

But the study also says that Chinatown is small, and the opportunities for creating lofts are much more limited compared to other cities. The boundaries of the Chinatown Special Historic District comprise about 15 blocks, and include about 150 parcels, 19 of which are owned by the city.

costs a deterrent

Also, the existing buildings in Chinatown are ill-suited for residential loft space, since many have no access to the upper floors except through the ground level retail space, said Lauri Michel, vice president for community revitalization at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and an author of the study.

The buildings are also small and need significant work.

A survey of 10 Chinatown landowners for the study found all of them had empty upper-floor spaces, and were interested in renting to commercial tenants.

Only four also expressed an interest in seeking residential tenants.

The landowners said the biggest challenges in renting residential lofts includes the considerable infrastructure upgrades required, putting in parking, and having to a pay a park dedication fee for converting even a single unit from office to residential. They also said residential tenants are harder to manage.

Robert Gerell, a real estate expert who was on the mayor's Chinatown/Downtown Task Force in 2004 and was a strong proponent of allowing lofts in the community, said the city failed to look at the regulatory barriers to setting up lofts. Add the park fee and the parking requirement to the cost of renovating an upper-floor unit (which often must be brought up to code) and setting up residential lofts no longer makes economic sense, Gerell said.

Still, Gerell said he has hope residential lofts will start cropping up in Chinatown "as a way to bring more vibrancy and occupancy" to the community.

The study's survey of about 200 artists showed they were interested in residential space in Chinatown but had trouble finding any. The biggest barriers, they said, were affordability, a lack of interest among landowners and a lack of space big enough to both work and live.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


Public Participation Essential for Planning, Protecting Maui's Future

Friday, May 23, 2008

Historic Hawaii Foundation Elects new Trustees

The Historic Hawaii Foundation has elected the following new directors to its board of trustees: Linda Faye Collins, Carol Fukunaga, Frank Haas, Lea Ok Soon Hong, Robert Nobriga, Michael J. O'Malley, Antony M. Orme, Patricia Sheehan, Ramsay Taum and Richard S. Towill. The foundation has also elected new officers for its executive committee: Timothy E. Johns, president; Ray Soon, first vice president; Stanton Enomoto, second vice president; Lea Ok Soon Hong, secretary; Robert Nobriga, treasurer; Michael J. O'Malley, at large officer; and Robert Iopa, at large officer.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

New Preserve America Stewards Program

Applications are now being accepted in a new recognition program of the Preserve America initiative -- Preserve America Stewards -- which will honor exemplary volunteer efforts at historic resources around the country. Mrs. Laura Bush, First Lady and Honorary Chair of Preserve America, announced the new program at the Preserve America Presidential Awards ceremony on May 12 at the White House.

The program will recognize stewardship programs that have demonstrated a successful use of volunteer time and commitment in order to help care for our cultural heritage. Government entities (federal, tribal, state, or local), non-profit organizations, and businesses are eligible to apply to have their programs recognized.

The application form and guidance is attached and is also available at While the quarterly schedule for submissions makes June 1st the next deadline, we encourage applicants to submit applications at any time over the summer if they are interested in being among the first programs to be designated as Preserve America Stewards.

To be designated, applicants must demonstrate that their programs provide individual volunteers with opportunities to contribute in direct and tangible ways to the preservation, protection, and promotion of historic properties; address an otherwise unfilled need in heritage preservation through the use of volunteer effort; and demonstrate innovative and creative use of volunteer assistance in areas such as youth involvement, volunteer training, public education, and public/private partnerships.

Designated programs will receive a certificate of recognition as well as a letter of congratulations signed by Mrs. Bush, similar to the existing Preserve America Community recognition program. The organizations and agencies will also be listed in an online directory, with links to their own Web sites, contact information, and information for potentially interested volunteers about getting involved.

Other benefits will include listing in a joint Preserve America/Take Pride in America national database of volunteer heritage resource stewardship opportunities; use of the Preserve America logo in public outreach and promotional activities; enhanced access to existing technical assistance resources that may be helpful in the development, management, and ongoing support of a local volunteer stewardship program; periodic selection in a “Program Highlights” feature on the Preserve America and Take Pride in America Web sites; and consideration for further national recognition through existing annual volunteer service awards sponsored by the federal government.

For further information, contact Druscilla Null at or at (202) 606-8532.

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