New prosperity envisioned for downtown’s Wo Fat building
A historic building in the Chinatown district is slated for restoration and return to restaurant use under a plan that also envisions a boutique hotel on the property.
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What is described as the “most iconic building” in
Honolulu’s historic Chinatown district is slated for restoration and return to restaurant use under a plan that also envisions a boutique hotel on the property.
The estimated $10 million project calls for restoring and reusing the three-story Wo Fat building on the corner of Maunakea and North Hotel streets next year.
A partnership led by a Texas real estate investor and involving former University of Hawaii head football coach June Jones is undertaking the plan, details of which were presented in an environmental assessment published by the state Wednesday.
The partnership, Mighty Wo Fat LLC, said in the report its project will contribute to the resurgence of Chinatown nightlife.
“The opening of the restaurant on the ground floor of the Wo Fat Building will add to Chinatown’s vibrant and growing restaurant district and help to attract people to downtown after dark,” the report said.
Plans include a restaurant, bar and coffee bar on the ground floor. On the upper floors, 23 or 24 hotel rooms would be created. However, if hotel use turns out not to be viable, the rooms would become dormitory housing.
The exterior of the 80-year-old building would be maintained with some previously altered historical elements restored and more modern additions removed.
Jones is the partnership’s lead local investor, while John Davenport of Austin, Texas, is its lead investor and principal.
Davenport said a concept for the new restaurant has not been decided.
The building, adorned with a tall neon “Wo Fat Chop Sui” sign in English and Chinese, was the longtime home of the Wo Fat restaurant, which existed for more than 100 years and was regarded as the oldest restaurant in Hawaii until it closed in 1994.
Wo Fat, which translates to “peace” and “prosperity,” was founded in 1882 by a group of Chinese businessmen.
The restaurant’s original building at another site on Maunakea Street burned down in 1900. Soon after that, Wo Fat restaurant was rebuilt nearby before a larger and more elaborate building was constructed in its place in 1938. That building is the one that stands today.
When it opened in 1938, Wo Fat featured a curved bar on the ground floor, a second-floor dining room seating 300 to 500 people, and a third-level Dragon Room and rooftop garden for private parties and dancing. For decades the restaurant serving Cantonese cuisine was a dominant attraction for the local Chinese community, other kamaaina patrons, celebrities and visitors.
Local ownership of the restaurant shifted several times. A proliferation of business districts and Chinese restaurants in Honolulu ultimately doomed Wo Fat.
A company owned by the Chinese government leased the property in 1994 and opened Shanghai-cuisine restaurant Lou Wai Lou, modeled after a well-known restaurant in Hangzhou, China. Lou Wai Lou didn’t last long, and after some nightclub use the two upper floors have been vacant for about a decade. A food market occupies the ground-floor space.
Mighty Wo Fat bought the building for $4 million last year.
Dean Sakamoto, an architect working on the project, said the developer will honor the history of the building, which meant a lot to Honolulu’s Chinese community. “Wo Fat has a lot of meaning to them,” he said.
Sakamoto said the partnership will seek to have the building listed on the state and national registers of historic places. Because the building is in Chinatown, which is a historic district, a special permit must be obtained from the city for alterations, and plans must be reviewed by the city’s design review commission, Department of Planning and Permitting and Downtown Neighborhood Board.
The State Historic Preservation Division already reviewed and OK’d the design plans. The nonprofit Historic Hawai‘i Foundation also supports the project.
“A necessary and appropriate means of preserving historic buildings includes capital reinvestment and ensuring that they remain useful and livable over time, so as to avoid leaving older buildings vacant, unmaintained or neglected,” Kiersten Faulkner, the foundation’s executive director, said in a letter. “We appreciate the effort and commitment to this preservation project and wish them well in seeing it to completion.”
If plans progress as expected, work could start in April and be finished by January 2020.