23 May 2013

Extant Assets - Ala Mona Center, Honolulu, HI

In Hawai'ian, Ala Moana translates to the phrase "path to the sea." And that's exactly where this historic and iconic retail landmark lies, just across Ala Moana Boulevard from Ala Moana Park. From there, it's only a short walk through lush greenery separating the mid-century behemoth from the frothy waves of the crystal blue Pacific Ocean.

Ala Moana Center was a place that our family only visited on rare occasions. Living in Ewa Beach clear across Pearl Harbor from the main urban core, it was just much quicker and more convenient to patronize Pearlridge Center. In addition to proximity issues, Ala Mona was the proverbial tourist trap, perpetually overflowing with Hawai'ian shirt clad clueless visitors from the mainland who were more than willing to pay exorbitant mark-ups for the same merchandise that locals could find at Pearlridge or the Kam Swap Meet. Nonetheless, it was still a neat place to venture out to every once in a while. It was absolutely enormous and, for my youthful, stubby legs, felt like it went on forever. After six years in Hawai'i and upon our family's departure when I was ten years of age, I recall our visiting Ala Moana not more than a handful of times.

Ala Moana Center Mallmanac, ca. 1992. View the full PDF version here.

In 1993, I returned to Hawai'i as an architecture major attending The University of Hawai'i at Manoa. Not in possession of a personal vehicle and being completely dependent on public transportation, I did visit retail the juggernaut regularly, but mostly as a transferring passenger in their comprehensive and bustling transit hub. If I had time to kill between connections, I'd sometimes browse the corridors of Ala Moana, at that time decked out in tropical shades of pinks and greens. I mainly shopped at Foodland, an on property supermarket, or Woolworth, one of the few offerings that didn't completely void my broke college student pockets.

Ala Moana's footprint through much of the eighties and early nineties.

Ala Moana Center was also an exceptional place to people watch. From its many comfortable and shaded seating areas, one could watch overweight mid-westerners on holiday, locals in rubber sleepahs wearing Local Motion t-shirts all mingling with high end, fresh from the latest botox treatment trophy wives strutting along in their Manolo Blahniks while clutching bags full of their Liberty House and Gucci wares close to their recently updated bodies. The variety of cuisine one could sample was unbeatable, as the complex was home to what is claimed to be the "world's largest international food court." It offers more than twenty eateries on a lower level enclosure on the ocean side. Also positioned in the mix were several koi ponds, numerous palm trees and a central stage featuring over 500 performances a year. Classic Hawai'ian ukulele based rhythms could be heard emanated softly from discreet speakers, truly making Ala Moana quite the sensory experience.

Ala Moana after the 1999 expansion.

Ala Moana opened on August 13, 1959 on a vacant plot of reclaimed swamp land across the Ala Wai canal from Waikiki. It debuted as the largest shopping center in the country, though the passing decades have brought larger facilities to the retail scene, thereby dropping its ranking to fifteenth as of this writing. It still does retain the title of the world's largest open-air retail center, however.

Ala Moana Center premiered with initial anchors Sears, Woolworth and Shirokiya, a Japan based department store. In 1966, along with the addition of an eastern "Diamond Head" wing, JCPenney and Honolulu-based Liberty House joined the lineup. In 1987, the Makai Food Court was constructed and, as of my 1993 residence in the Aloha state, it was two complete tiers with the bottom level storefronts facing the carpark while the upper floor businesses all opened onto a central common area running the length of the building. There was a limited and diminutive third level at that time, dubbed Palm Avenue, containing some of the facility's more exclusive retailers around the mall's mid point.

Ala Moana Center from above. (Source)

In 1999, the third level was extended to the full length of the mall between Sears and Liberty House, which by then had been replaced by Macy's. The addition of Dallas-based Neiman Marcus on the front side of the mall during the same expansion brought a truly upscale, full line department store to the islands for the first time. In the mid 2000s, obsolete retail space was demolished on the northern flanking edge of Ala Mona to make room for construction of the "mauka wing," another open-air corridor with increased square footage for additional shops and an outlet of luxury retailer Nordstrom.

Ala Moana's ever expanding footprint as of this writing. With it's kudzu-like growth tendencies, I doubt that it will look this way for much longer.

On my most recent visit to O'ahu in 2008, I never got a chance to visit Ala Moana, though much time was spent wandering the streets of neighboring Waikiki in a drunken stupor. But it is definitely in the plans for the next time I make it out to Hawai'i. And I can't wait, as the place changes so dern much that on each venture it seems to present a whole new experience.

7 January 2015

Ala Moana Center's official website


  1. It seems they are going to tear down the Sears in Ala Moana and turn that into Hawaii's first Bloomingdales, you should check 'Mall Hall of Fame' for a bit more info on that! Cool site by the way!

    1. Thanks for commenting, Go Nordrike!

      Wow, that's crazy. Is Sears leaving the mall or Hawai'i entirely? That would be sad as all of the department stores I grew up with (Liberty House, JCPenney, Woolworth and Sears) would no longer be in the islands. They've really upscaled the holy hell outr of Ala Moana, not too many retail facilities can boast first tier names like Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus AND Bloomingdales. Good for them, and those Hawaiians who can afford to shop there after paying some of the country's highest prices for a box of cereal (among other necessities.)

      I'll look up the info and perhaps do an update to this post. Thanks for reading.