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.
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 Center was also an exceptional place to people watch. From its many comfortable and shaded seating areas, one could watch jovial 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 emanating softly from discreet speakers, truly making Ala Moana quite the sensory experience.
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.
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
Well, Ala Moana’s last extant major department store has left the 56 year old property. Sears closed in 2013 but is slated to be replaced by Hawai’i’s first Bloomingdales. Sears’ tri-level home took up over 341,000 square feet of space, but the new entrant will only use about 170,000 of those. General Growth Properties, Ala Moana’s owners, have stated that the balance of the space will be used in a “re-imagining” of the entire Ewa side of the world’s largest open-air retail facility. Sears joins JCPenney and the iconic Liberty House as former names no longer gracing the facades of the complex located just across the Ala Wai canal from Waikiki as it continues to make an upscale climb from its more humble, middle-market beginnings.
-9 March 2022
I finally made my way back to the islands for the first time since 2008 in early 2017. My absence went on for way too long and now I make it a point to consistently visit the place where I grew up. With 2020 as the exception, I have been back to Hawai’i at least once a year since then. In that time, Ala Moana has continued with its constant additions and transformations, and the complex today is nothing like it was even ten years ago. The mall nicely absorbed the 2002 loss of JCPenney on the Diamond Head wing, integrating their space into more upscale shops and eateries. The loss of an anchor is enough to cripple most malls while Ala Moana didn’t skip a beat and in fact thrived.
In 2013, the Sears store, the first anchor to open in the mall, shuttered its doors after 54 years in business. However, it wasn’t long before Ala Moana Center embarked on another expansion to bring even more anchors to the already expansive behemoth. The three story, largely monolithic department store was razed. In its place was rose a 650,000 square foot expansion bringing with it a new Bloomingdales, a new and expanded location for the old Foodland dubbed Foodland Farms, more shops and eateries, including a Nordstrom gelato shop and, of course, the Nordstrom store was moved from the Mauka wing to a position on the north-westernmost facing section of the facility abutting Piikoi Street.
In the old Nordstrom location at the end of the Mauka wing, a new Target and an Off Fifth Saks were opened, bringing more mid-priced selections as well as their demographic with them. The entire wing has been transformed with more family friendly venues as well as with play areas for the keiki, giving shoppers other choices besides the upscale and adult oriented retailers occupying most of the rest of the mall. But I am happy to say that the one part that hasn’t changed much is the incredible selection in the food court. One can still choose from a variety of mainly Asian inspired cuisines, from Bangga Bangga to Jollibee.
The area surrounding Ala Moana has seen an influx of development as well. The days of a concrete parking deck fronting Ala Moana Boulevard are gone. Living spaces have been added over much of the parking deck on the Ewa side close to Bloomingdale’s. Called Park Lane Ala Moana, it contains a series of multi-level apartment and condo blocks that were constructed along the thoroughfare. The lucky occupants are now afforded enchanting views of Ala Moana Park and the Pacific Ocean, including its incredible sunsets over the Waianae Mountains on one side, with world-class shopping on the other.
Still more growth is headed for Ala Moana. A station acting as the eastern terminus for O’ahu’s light rail system, HART, is to be built at the center, though who knows when it will actually open. Overall, Ala Moana seems to have weathered the covid pandemic better than most of its peers in the state and remains one of the most successful retail facilities in the US, with sales of over $1,100.00 per square foot. Though it will never personally be on the level of that local mall of my youth, Pearlridge Center, I’ve definitely come to love Ala Moana for what it is and make it a part of every trip I take back to the islands.