11 November 2011

Pearlridge Center, Aiea, HI

A mall of my youth

1 October 2023

Most people from my generation have their Mall (or Malls) of their Youth. Having spent the majority of my formative years in three places, I have three Malls of my Youth. The first was Pearlridge Center in Aiea, Hawai’i.

Pearlridge Center Mallmanac ca. 1993. View the full PDF version here.

To most people, Hawai’i is seen as that far off paradise that one is only lucky enough to visit once or twice in their lifetime. To me, Hawai’i was just home. I lived there from the time I was four until I was ten in a military townhouse in Ewa Beach, across Pearl Harbor from the bustle and tourists of Honolulu. On the island, there were two major malls and several smaller ones. Everybody knows Ala Moana, that huge upscale open-air mall on the doorstep of Waikiki. It was for tourists and locals tended not so visit so much. Pearlridge was where we went.

Shots of and from the famous the monorail, officially known as the Skycab.

To this day, I've never seen a mall quite like Pearlridge. The mall is primarily divided between two separate buildings with several outlying plazas and a watercress farm smack dab in the middle. But the coolest thing about the center was always the monorail connecting the two main buildings.

1- The main entrance to Pearlridge Uptown.  2- The view of the tall, residential skyscrapers of the Aiea skyline as seen from the roof of the Uptown section. 3- Aiea's skyline rises behind the Downtown section's Sears store. 4- Sears comes into view during a ride on the Skycab. Just outside of its doors lies the watercress fields. 5- Blue skies above Pearl Harbor, another of O'ahu's landmarks easily seen from Pearlridge Center's roof.  6- One of the seating areas of Uptown.

At least once a week before starting kindergarten, my mom and I would ride The Bus (literally; the public bus in Honolulu is called just that- The Bus.) She’d bring a fold up cart with us as we took the long trek from the Leeward side of the island to Aiea. As we approached our stop at the corner of Kam (Kamehameha) Highway and Kaonohi Street, she’d always put me in charge of pulling the wire to signal our desire to disembark. I was always nervous with this responsibility; I was afraid that if I were too late the bus would just keep going and going forever.

-UPDATE-  Pearlridge Center lease plan ca. 2011. View the full PDF version here.

We’d start these trips at the Kamehameha Drive-In, home of a massive daily swap meet. Then after consuming my shave ice and scouring the place for toy airplanes, we’d cross the busy Kaonohi Street to Pearlridge Center.

1- Another view of the Downtown section from the Skycab. 2- The cool, wooden tones of the interior, second level concourse of Uptown. 3- Outside the Uptown Macy's store, originally a Liberty House. 4- The full view of the watercress fields separating Downtown from Uptown, with the Waianae mountains in the distance to the west. 

Pearlridge Center was a fairly unremarkable set of buildings from the outside. A lot of the exterior was obscured from view by several car parks and rooftop lots. It was dark and always seemed crowded on the inside, with very little natural light filtering in due to the near absence of skylights. Parking, it seemed, was a better use for the rooftops than a few ceiling windows. I’d wait patiently while my mom shopped at JCPenney and Liberty House for what was always the highlight of the day- riding the monorail to what was then called Phase Two.

-UPDATE- 1 & 2- Entrances to Pearlridge Wai Makai.  3- The exterior of the enormous Sears.  4- The monorail doors at Wai Makai.  5 & 6- The monorail makes its way to Pearlridge Mauka.

The monorail station in Phase One was located on the roof. I remember the escalators leading up to the station had the word Monorail painted diagonally along the full length (or maybe it was Parking, or Level Three... Seems I don’t remember too clearly. *)  My mom always gave me a quarter so that I could pay the attendant myself. I’d happily give the shiny coin to the bored teenage attendant and wait anxiously for the monorail to arrive.

-UPDATE-  Pearlridge Center lease plan ca. 2014. View the full PDF version here.

The view from the rooftop station was amazing. We were surrounded by a skyline of tall, striking residential towers to the north and, to the south, got an excellent vista of Pearl Harbor, Ford Island and Aloha Stadium. Those views were forgotten, however, when the Skycab would finally pull up. I was always giddy with excitement as the doors slid open and we took our seats in the driverless tram.

A jaunt on the Skycab. It was like I was a kid again, and you can hear my excitement.

-UPDATE-  Forward view (2017)

-UPDATE-  View to the south (2017)

To many kids my age in Hawai’i, riding the monorail was the pinnacle of excitement. There were no real amusement parks on the island (there was Castle Park, but it was hardly Cedar Point) so this was all we knew. The monorail rode slowly downward from Phase One on the narrowest of tracks, taking a sharp turn to the right just before a couple of doors flung open allowing us entrance into Phase Two.

Pearlridge Center's layout as of this writing.

Here, we’d hit Woolworth on the bottom level before heading to Sears. I’ll never forget the impressive three-story copper koi hanging next to the escalators. They were just cool as hell. Then, we’d get a bite to eat at Zippy’s or Anna Miller's before taking the long bus ride back home.

-UPDATE- 1- The renovated entrance to Pearlridge Wai Makai.  2- An elevator at Pearlridge Mauka.  3 to 6- The koi in the Sears.

Pearlridge, at least as I see it, has changed little over the years. I returned to Hawai’i as a freshman at University and was glad to see that, besides the interiors being a little brighter, the monorail was still running and the koi were still swimming upstream. I even got a part time job at the very same Woolworth where my mother spent hours (to me, at least) browsing the boring fabric department.

-UPDATE-  Pearlridge Center magazine ca. 2015. View the full PDF version here.

The last time I was in Hawaii was in 2008, after a fifteen year absence. I was glad to see that wood and earth tones, though in more of a style in tune with modern tastes, were returned to the decor. Phase One (Macy's building) had been renamed Uptown, while Phase Two (Sears building) was rechristened Downtown. The best thing, though, was that the monorail was still running and the koi were still swimming (figuratively, of course.) And, being the first Mall of my Youth, Pearlridge set the bar pretty high. Luckily, however, the second Mall of my Youth was more than able to meet the challenge.

-UPDATE- 1- The Sears mall entrance before the 2018 renovation.  2- & 3- The Sears entrance and corridor after the renovations.  4 to 6- The monorail station and food court at Wai Makai.


-1 October 2023

*Seems I was wrong on all accounts about what was painted on the side of the escalators leading to the monorail.  Apparently it said “the train.” (Source)

Pearlridge Center is, fortunately, still going strong.  Though one more anchor has been lost in Sears (as well as their koi,) the retail campus is still a popular draw despite the addition of Ka Makana Ali’i to the leeward side of O’ahu.  The famed department store abutting Kamehameha Highway vacated their space in 2021, after even the location at Ala Moana was closed.  Hopefully the koi were able to find homes elsewhere.

1- Pre 2018 renovation Wai Makai.  2- The monorail track.  3- The monorail crawls up to Pearlridge Mauka.  4- Looking out at the Mauka monorail station.  5- the entrance to the monorail station at Mauka before opening.  6- The monorail is down again.

Since its beginnings in 1972, Pearlridge Center has been a real draw for island locals.  Opened as Hawaii’s largest fully enclosed shopping center, it was expanded in 1976 with the addition of Phase Two (the portion with Sears and later rechristened Pearlridge Downtown) as well as the monorail.  The original building opened with JCPenney as the eastern anchor and Liberty House in the anchor spot to the west.

Pearlridge Center Mallmanac ca. (2017). View the full PDF version here.

The locally based Liberty House nameplate was removed forever from the islands upon the Macy’s takeover in 2001.  In 2003, JCPenney departed the Hawaiian Islands completely, leaving a darkened anchor on the eastern side of Pearlridge Uptown.  The space was soon subdivided into smaller inline stores as well as junior anchors Price Busters and Borders Books while a few years later TJMaxx and Ross Dress for Less took over their square footage.

1- The entrance to Pearlridge Mauka in 2018.  2-  The Liberty House/ Macy's.  3- TJMaxx in what used to be JCPenney.  4- The lower level concourse at Mauka in 2018.  5- The upper level concourse at Mauka.  6- The escalators leading up to the Mauka monorail station in 2018. 

The sections formerly called Phase One/ Uptown and Phase Two/ Downtown have been retitled as Pearlridge Mauka (toward the mountains) and Pearlridge Wai Makai (towards the sea) respectively in 2019.  Sears loss initially left the center with 185,000 square feet of vacant leasable area but the rest of the center is at full occupancy and sales per square foot have already surpassed the numbers from before the Covid-19 pandemic.

1- Skylights at Pearlridge Wai Makai after the 2018 renovation.  2- The map of Hawai'i at Pearlridge Mauka's center court.  3- Looking at Mauka from the rooftop of Wai Makai.  4- The monorail track with Pearl Harbor in the background.  5 & 6- Pearlridge Center with the Ko'olau Mountains in the background.

Pearlridge is always a must visit on any one of my annual trips to the islands, along with getting breakfast at Anna Miller’s, a local institution whose parking lot can be seen as completely full at any time during the breakfast hours.  The diner, located on the upper level of a circular building on the property’s far eastern corner, was one of Pearlridge Center’s very first tenants.  Sharing the same building but one level beneath Anna Miller’s used to be The Roundhouse, a train themed restaurant that was one of my favorite destinations back in the day.  An Italian restaurant, Bravo, occupies the space today.

Pearlridge Center lease plan ca. 2023. View the full PDF version here.

Though everything remains bright and airy with almost zero vacancies, my only concern with Pearlridge is the monorail.  It remains the high point of any of my visits to Hawai’i, but recently the nearly fifty year old Skycab seems to be under maintenance more often than not.  But when it is open, just one ride down the narrowest of tracks at the slowest of speeds brings me back to being a kid again.  I really hope they’re able to keep it in running order, but I completely understand if one day they determine that it’s best days are in the past and it is taken out of commission.  What a sad day that will be.

1- Anna Miller's.  2 to 6- The watercress fields between Pearlridge Mauka and Pearlridge Wai Makai.

The recently opened Honolulu Skyline, the city’s light rail system, has a nearby stop at the Kalauao (Pearlridge) Station, making access much easier than in the past.  Hopefully this will only add to Pearlridge Center’s continued success and I’ll be able to visit the first mall of my youth for many years to come.


  1. Anyone remembers where San Francisco Rag Shop was located. I know if was located on the first floor of Pearlridge Mauka (aka Phase 1, aka Uptown), was it located next to See's Candies?

  2. I remember. I worked there in 1989 - great times. It was across the Sees Candy. It was where the Sun Glass Hut is now.