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Old Waikiki remains vacant for 13 years

How gay tourism was destroyed in Waikiki

eTN  Jul 16, 2011

Thirteen years ago, the Magoon parcel - which includes the former Canlis restaurant, ula's Bar & Lei Stand, Hamburger Mary's, Cafe Valentino, Hotel Honolulu, and a smattering of small shops referred to as "Old Waikiki" - was considered the largest remaining development site in Waikiki. It was also considered a fixture of the Waikiki scene and a gathering place for Hawaii’s gay Ccmmunity.

The property went on the market in March 1997 for US$75 million, and since then, prospective developers have swarmed around the site with ideas for hotels, retail, and entertainment uses. On the neighboring block, where the Kuhio Theatre stood for 50 years, the four-story King Kalakaua Plaza complex emerged.

The city's amended Waikiki Special District ordinance opens development options for the Magoon tract, and most observers were betting on high-density retail use as the likely outcome.

Thirteen years later, the once vibrant party block remains vacant.

Hawaii Governor Abercrombie may have recognized this dilemma when he stated in his target="_blank">proclamation presented to Jack Law on July 14, 2011. He said: "The old and legendary establishment of Hula’s became the spot for the biggest parties and events in Waikiki." The Governor went on to state: "Hula’s Bar and Lei Stand has been recognized worldwide as a fixture of the Waikiki scene and as a gathering place for Hawaii’s gay community."

"When they moved Hula’s and closed Old Waikiki it killed gay tourism," said Preston Waters from Phoenix Arizona and a frequent tourist to Waikiki.

"I get angry every time I walk by Kalaimoku Street and Kuhio Avenue. True - Hula's moved to the Diamond Head side of Waikiki and is now occupying the second floor of the Waikiki Grand Hotel, but it's not the same. The gay scene has been too quiet. Thirteen years ago you could go out on a Sunday afternoon, and every establishment in Old Waikiki was already packed with people. All this is gone," Waters continued.

“Hula's, Hamburger Mary, Cafe Valentino, the movie theatre, all these little shops and establishments, the street parties - all gone. Waikiki has not been the same ever since," he said.

And what happened to this parcel after Hula's and other venues were forced to close or move? Nike town was opened and is now closed. A grocery store and a large vacant lot with a fence around former Old Waikiki remains. The pulse of young entertainment and a center for the gay scene was never re-established again.

Waters continued to say: "I cannot believe the city would allow this lot to stay empty. This must have cost the state millions of lost tourism dollars. Many of my friends did not travel back to Waikiki after they found 'Old Waikiki' gone. I think Waikiki has not been the same fun place ever since."

With the Governor recognizing Hula's Bar & Lei Stand owner Jack Law in his proclamation, and Hawaii allowing domestic partnerships for the first time next year, hope remains for the gay culture to find a way back to this resort town.

Juergen T. Steinmetz, president of the privately-owned Hawaii Tourism Association, had alerted city officials for years about this issue - all without reaction or response. Steinmetz said: "Waikiki is a resort city and relies on tourism revenue. City officials should not allow a vacant lot of this size and location to stay abandoned for thirteen years."

How gay tourism was destroyed in Waikiki
Lionel has been the "door man" for Hulas for decades. / Photo by Scott Foster

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