Wailuku Town Getting a New Lease on Life

 by Wayne Smith

        Two major new construction projects and a handful of building and store remodeling efforts are leading the way in the revitalization of Wailuku Town, Maui’s civic and government center. If these projects are successful in getting through the planning and approval processes and are constructed in a reasonable amount of time, other developers will no doubt follow and fuel the return of Wailuku Town to its former prominence on the island.

Robert and Lisa Joslin, long-time Wailuku residents, held a ground breaking ceremony in late January for their new Main Street Promenade development. Adhering to the revitalization and historic preservation themes of the Wailuku Main Street Association, the new building will incorporate the facade of the old building currently on the lot, built in 1936, into their new plans.

Robert Joslin, in an interview with the Maui News, called the site of his project, “the longest, ugliest stretch of Main Street, but it’s going to be the best,” when the building which will house retail stores, restaurants and offices when completed.

Jonathan Starr, developer of one of the multi-use projects, also in a Maui News interview, commented on his project: "I've been in love with Wailuku for several years. Maui is at a point that we need a vibrant downtown and the way to do it is to create a mixed-use'' neighborhood, where people live as well as work, and have shopping, dining and entertainment close by.

As more open space or agricultural land is being turned into shopping centers and housing, many point to urban sprawl as a major threat to Maui's quality of life. Wailuku, according to Starr, is “where we want to see development happen.''

To that end, Starr is proposing a new three-story, multi-use building for Main Street near Market. In the proposed structure, dubbed The Dragon, Starr will implement several recommendations from the updated Wailuku redevelopment plan. The plan was conceived by a process suggested by the Maui Redevelopment Agency and approved in January by the Planning Commission. The project is now headed to the County Council for adoption. Starr also has several programs of his own planned for his new building. He is working with the Maui Chamber of Commerce to locate a number of nonprofit organizations as tenants in a ”Wailuku Resource Center'' in the upper floors of the planned building.

 

Renewing Wailuku Town

These latest projects join several other recent developments which are reshaping the look and feel of Wailuku while maintaining its character.

The community effort to restore the Iao Theater as the home for the Maui Community Theater's productions and other events was completed in 1995. It was a turning point for Wailuku and crystallized in the minds of many what could happen in the area. The fallout of that project has been remarkable: David Singer, Wailuku resident and CPA, purchased in 1998 a dilapidated building on Market Street and, after a major rebuilding/remodeling effort, turned it into the area’s newest retail and office space. The project raised the bar for new retail development on the street; The new Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Court on Main Street became the home community organizations such as the Maui Aids Foundation, Women Helping Women and Lokahi Pacific; The former National Dollar Store building, also on Main, was remodeled to house the Maui Academy of Performing Arts; and Grant Howe's Commercial Properties of Maui has constructed a new office complex on Main which replaced a WWII-era Quonset hut eyesore with a modern office building, adding to the appeal of old Wailuku Town.

The Starr and Joslin projects will redevelop two of the most needy structures and lots in the area. Because of their size alone, their impact will be enormous in the progression of the revival of Wailuku Town.

 

Demolition or Renovation

In the 1970’s and early ‘80’s, when urban renewal was the rage, and usually meant bulldozing large areas to make way for new buildings, there was considerable resistance to letting quaint Wailuku become its victim. While the town had its problems with its physical infrastructure, there was seldom a vacant commercial space because the economy was so good. However, when the state’s economy began its freefall in the early 1990’s, the years of neglect began to show as businesses moved out and left buildings vacant.

Just as so many other small and medium sized “downtowns” in the country deteriorated after the end of World War II and the advent of shopping centers, strip malls and suburbia, Wailuku Town has languished in relative disrepair for a number of years. It was Maui’s “inner city” dying a slow, agonizing death caused by its merchants fleeing a physically deteriorating town which could no longer compete for shoppers drawn to newer suburban commercial area. But, that appears to be changing as civic organizations like the Main Street Association, the Maui Redevelopment Agency, county and state officials and concerned citizens are joining together to return Wailuku Town to its former importance as Maui’s “Downtown.” For fourteen years, through the administrations of Mayors Tavaras, Lingle and now, Apana, Wailuku’s revival has gained momentum and today is in full bloom with new ideas and projects.

A new plan which emphasizes revitalization, historic preservation, infrastructure replacement and relief from strict requirements on owners who want to do something with their properties was developed around the core of the old urban renewal concept. The Wailuku Main Street Association and the Tri Isle Main Street Resource Center, under the direction of Jocelyn A. Perreira, joined hands with the older Maui Redevelopment Agency to find ways to once again make Wailuku an attractive and viable town.

 

Much of old Wailuku remains as it was 50 to 75 years ago when it was the dominate government, shopping and entertainment center of Maui. The charms of the quaint old downtown have been tarnished or hidden by ill-conceived remodeling or plain neglect as the economic lifeblood was siphoned away by new shopping centers and the even newer advent of the “big box” stores like Costco and Super Kmart.

Wailuku has been Maui’s government center for nearly 100 years. When Maui, Lanai and Molokai were united as Maui County in 1904, shortly after the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom and the establishment of an American form of government in the islands, Wailuku was chosen as the county seat over Lahaina, largely because it had a new, "modern" water system.

Wailuku stands at the entrance to the magnificent Iao Valley, a sacred and revered place by pre-contact Hawaiians. The village received its name after the battle which established King Kamehameha as the ruler of all the Hawaiian islands. The name translates as "waters-of-destruction" because many Maui warriors were killed in the battle and their blood is said to have turned the waters of the Iao river red.

Its climate, lush vegetation and easy access to fresh water made Wailuku a favored place by the Hawaiian royalty and later by the missionaries who came to the islands. Cooling clouds and breezes at the northern edge of town near the West Maui mountains, is where the original native Hawaiian ali’i had built their kauhali (villages) and heiau (ceremonial platforms). Early missionaries built their settlements, churches and schools here for the same reasons - often over historic Hawaiian sites to assert their dominance over the "pagan" religion of the islands.

The historic area, now bounded by High Street and North Main, was for years the most sought-after residential area on the island. Mill owners and lunas (bosses) built their homes along the street to partake in the natural beauty and climate of the surroundings.

 

The Way it Was

 Early Wailuku Town lay in the shadow of the smoke stacks of one of the island’s many sugar mills - Wailuku Sugar Company - and was surrounded by its cane fields from the mid-1850’s. Old photos reveal smoke stacks and soaring church steeples as the most prominent features of the community  in the early days. Within a few miles of downtown, other mills, plantations and their attendant “camps” for workers, poured economic abundance into the city. While the workers were often served by “company stores,” and small markets, usually owned by Japanese immigrant merchants, dotted the landscape, Wailuku merchants provided a wider variety of merchandise, services and entertainment, which drew the population to the downtown area.

The corner of Main Street and Market was the busiest intersection on the island. Stores, shops, banks, car dealerships, restaurants, bars and churches surrounded this focal point of Maui’s economic existence. The Iao Theater, an imposing structure for its time, was built in the heyday of 1927. It is the oldest movie theater in the state of Hawaii: a testament to early prominence.

Until the sand dunes on the eastern edge of town were pierced in the 1930’s by today’s Kaahumanu Street, Main Street curved northward at the base of the imposing natural barrier and stretched another mile to the harbor. Thriving businesses and residential areas lined Main and Lower Main Streets from High Street at the north end of town, where the county’s courthouse, Wailuku school and library and several churches were located, to the harbor in Kahului. The Kahului Rail Road tracks ran parallel to Lower Main and delivered workers, school children and shoppers from all along the North Shore from Haiku, Paia, Spreckelsville and dozens of small enclaves along the way.

 

What Does the Future Hold?

Now, in an age of internet shopping and speed dialing, there also seems to be a   rising sentiment for "the way things were" in a slower, less hectic time. The lure of the simpler past and having a sense of place is being widely embraced. Wailuku's rebirth as a multi-use mecca for Mauians has been gaining a groundswell of support. Developers and planners like Jonathan Starr, Robert and Lisa Joslin, Grant Howe, David Singer, Jocelyn Perreira, the Weinbergs and others are intent on making Wailuku

a model of how to make revitalization happen.

Wish them luck, and above all, success.

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