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Fort Street Mall: A work in progress

by Loren Moreno, editor

Two HPU seniors, both journalism majors, were walking down Fort Street Mall after class to grab a bite to eat. No sooner did they turn the corner from a Hawai‘i Pacific University facility then they encountered a derelict attempting to bum a cigarette. “I don’t smoke,” Mark Smith told the tattered old man. Monica Pleuler shook her head and proceeded to walk. As Smith and Pleuler approached Subway, they saw a homeless man who had just vomited and a bird eating the chunks.


This is one of many stories told by students at HPU on a daily basis—stories of midterms, stress, and bums. Fort Street Mall, a city-owned-and-operated park, is also home to the largest student population at HPU. A stigma has hung ominously over the area for years. In 1999, the Honolulu Advertiser published an editorial calling the mall a neglected and forgotten “slum.” What steps have been taken to clean up the “campus,” to make it a safe environment for students?

“ Over the years, the homeless situation on Fort Street Mall was much, much more pronounced than it is now,” said HPU Vice President Rick Stepien, who has been with the university since 1990. He says he’s seen “remarkable” improvement in the general condition of the mall over the past three years, and he credits HPU President Chatt Wright and the Business Improvement District (BID) board for it.

“When I first started with the BID, I saw pictures of homeless bathing in the fountains,” said Caroline Kim of the BID. Kim has been working on the BID for almost a year and said the mall “still has issues.”

Stepien said the University has been pushing for years to make the mall as “vibrant and accommodating” as other portions of downtown. The fact is, Fort Street is a public thoroughfare where HPU has no jurisdiction.

But Kim said that sometimes the city is just too bogged down and understaffed to notice that problems exist. “Sometimes they need someone to nudge them, or it’s not going to happen,” said Kim. Her constant calls finally got the city to wash HPU’s portion of the mall with hot-water pressure on April 16. “How quickly they respond to our concerns—sometimes I just can’t tell,” she said.

Other factors have prevented the mall’s improvement. In 2002, HPU and nearby St. Andrew’s Priory, according to a Honolulu Advertiser article by Beverly Creamer, had qualms about a social services office for sex offenders opening on or around the mall.

At the time, the Club House, a state-run social service facility, was located where the HPU Sea Warrior Student Center now is. Safe Haven, a facility for the homeless and addicted, was and still is located near HPU. President Wright raised concerns about both: “These things were not in the environment” when HPU moved to upper Fort Street Mall, he told the Honolulu Advertiser.

"We’re not against the agencies’ work, but we can’t have our people victimized by it,” he added.
The Club House has since disappeared, but other social service agencies remain. “Once you have a place that services the homeless, the mentally ill, the down of their luck, it’s an attraction for them because they want access to the services,” said Stepien. “Should the services be in the middle of the business district? That’s the burning question,” he added.

Kim wonders if that section of the mall would have the stigma it currently does if the services weren’t located so close to HPU. In 2002, the BID successfully had benches removed on Fort Street to prevent the homeless from settling in the area. The BID was hit hard with criticism from advocates for the homeless. “We became the insensitive, terrible land owners—and we’re not,” she said.

But as the benches came back, so did the homeless. HPU and the BID soon took action to combat the growing funk. The BID began to establish open markets, café tables, and umbrellas lining store fronts, and additional security—the idea being if the ambiance improves, the characters on the mall will too. Stepien said HPU currently spends one quarter of a million dollars a year on visible security on the mall and in buildings.

“ Our guards, by virtue of having a uniform on, help people move on. They don’t like that sign of authority. So people who have no business here move on,” Stepien said.

“The mall isn’t as spiffy as possible,” said Kim admitting things could be much better. However, with the no jurisdiction on the mall, both the BID and HPU are slaves to the city. A possible and rarely talked-about solution has always been privatization.

Stepien says the subject has come up, and HPU is open to ideas. Kim says she heard little to no talk about privatizing the mall, but also doesn’t rule it out. “It’s something the BID should consider, that I think would benefit the culture of the entire street,” she said.

Still, Kim says, the disadvantages of privatization may out weigh the advantages. “Would the building owners be willing to do it, and could they cover the basic services needed to maintain the mall on their own?” she asked. At this time there are no plans for privatization.

President Wright told the Honolulu Advertiser he is committed to the downtown area if the city is: “If the downtown area is going to resume its improvement, then we want to have a positive stake,” he said. “If it isn’t, we have other options for the University’s future.”

Kim said she is committed to making the mall safe not only for the businesses but also the students: “We’re trying to change the environment, and I believe it will change,” she said.

Stepien said he’s optimistic about the mall’s future and added, “We’d really like to see this take on the ambiance of a college campus.”



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