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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 28, 2010

Housing project wrong for Chinatown

By Wesley F. Fong

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Unlike the Chinatown of yesterday, now you can also find other ethnicities working side by side in the many shops.

Advertiser library photo

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The River Street walk is an integral part of Chinatown and offers a respite from Chinatown's bustling businesses.

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Honolulu's Chinatown has a unique history and character. Extending from Nimitz Highway to Vineyard Boulevard and from Nu'uanu Avenue to River Street, it is a vibrant neighborhood of shops, temples, schools and affordable housing complexes.

However, unlike the Chinatown of yesterday, today you can find not only Chinese but Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, Filipinos, Japanese, Koreans working side by side in the many shops and marketplaces. Vietnamese pho may have just supplanted the Chinese won ton mein in popularity.

There is even a distinctive art district that harmoniously coexists with the heart of Chinatown and is now a part of the fabric of Chinatown, though you may not find a Chinatown produce shopper visiting an art gallery to admire the work of an emerging artist or an art patron going to a Chinatown market to buy a bunch of choi sum.

Despite all of the changes to its fabric, Chinatown's character has not dramatically changed. A visit to Chinatown is still an adventure in sightseeing, shopping and eating. Where else can you find a cure for your cold at an herb shop, stop at a dim sum restaurant and order chicken feet for lunch, watch a friendly game of mah jong or if lucky join in a Chinese card game and then purchase the ingredients for the evening's meal?

An integral part of Chinatown is its river walk. Just a block away from the bustle of the busy produce markets is the River Street walk that extends from Nimitz Highway to Vineyard Boulevard. If one walks up the River Street mall to the Kwan Yin Temple in the early morning, one can feel a sense of peace and tranquility.

Unfortunately, the city has proposed to develop a residence for the homeless on River Street near Vineyard Boulevard. This so-called "Housing First" concept includes housing for those who are mentally incapacitated and/or have drug and alcohol abuse problems. Although counseling services will be available, they are strictly voluntary and not a condition of occupancy. These residents are free to roam the Chinatown neighborhood with little accountability.

The city should be commended for its efforts to help the homeless, but the proposed location for the "Housing First" project is inappropriate. Within just a block of the proposed site, there are three schools. One school has more than 290 students and about 80 percent of them live in the neighborhood. Many students walk within a half block of the proposed site.

There are also three temples within a half block and three affordable housing complexes and about 70 businesses within a block of the proposed site. In addition to the Chinatown community, the Downtown Neighborhood Board 13 and the Art District Art Merchants Association are opposed to the proposed location. Even the city's own prosecuting attorney's office is opposed because the location conflicts with the "Weed and Seed" program for the area.

A viable alternative to the "Housing First" project at the proposed location is an affordable senior housing complex with a senior multipurpose center. There is a great need for senior housing and a place for our seniors in the neighborhood to exercise, practice old skills, learn new ones and just socialize.

Such an alternative would be compatible with Chinatown's existing character and in keeping with the intent and purpose of the City Council's Resolution 09-364 CD1 adopted unanimously by the council on Jan. 27. The resolution requested the city administration to prepare a special area plan for Chinatown including the subject location to conform to the Chinatown Special District, emphasizing consideration of a low-rise, senior or other affordable housing project on River Street and with Chinatown community participation.

To date, the administration has not complied with the City Council's request.

We understand that there is a problem with the homeless not only in Chinatown but in nearly every neighborhood of Honolulu. But simply building a residence for the homeless at one location, especially without community input, will not solve the problem.

Since the homeless issue is of islandwide concern, won't it be more prudent for the city, state and all affected parties to sit down and together discuss a mutually acceptable master plan to address the homeless issue in all of Honolulu?

It is also important to ensure that the homeless actually agree to live in the homeless residence and follow its rules. This suggested forum is practical and should save a duplication of public and private effort and resources, but again this may just be political naīvet talking.

There is still a great need to protect and preserve the unique character of our Chinatown and its River Street walk and to preserve its rich heritage, culture and family life. San Antonio has its River Walk, so why can't Honolulu have its River Walk in Chinatown?

Wesley F. Fong is an attorney and community volunteer. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser in his role as president of Concerned Citizens on River Street Housing.