Building access at issue for downtown recreation center
By James Gonser
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
After complaints about restrictions on public access, the Downtown Neighborhood Board has asked the city to look into the operation of the city-owned Pauahi Recreation Center.
Board member Dolores Mollring said a woman who came to the group's December meeting was upset because she wasn't allowed into the center.
"She had her lunch and wanted to sit in there and eat," Mollring said. "The meals group wouldn't let her. So, the Pauahi community center, which is supposed to be for seniors, now has all these restrictions on it."
The city operates 113 such community centers across O'ahu that offer activities for seniors and children as well as exercise and healthcare classes taught by city employees. Pauahi is the only center operated by a private group Unity House.
A sign outside the Pauahi Recreation Center identifies it as a city and county facility, but Unity House has posted three signs identifying the building as its retiree center. No public hours or class offerings are listed.
Unity House, a nonprofit labor welfare organization with millions of dollars in assets, has been running the Pauahi center since the late 1980s, offering free exercise and recreational programs primarily for its retirees but under a stipulation that the public be allowed to participate as well. Lanakila Meals on Wheels delivers a free weekday lunch service to a group of mostly Unity House retirees at the facility.
City spokeswoman Carol Costa said Unity House provides a public service by staffing the building and running several classes for senior citizens.
However, the arrangement amounts to free, long-term use of a city-owned facility by a private organization. All Unity House has to do is renew its free permit every five years.
Lowell Ka'anehe, who manages the Pauahi Unity House programs, said all of its classes are open to the public.
"In exchange for using the building, we provide exercise programs that are open to the public," Ka'anehe said.
Eric Saunders, with the Lanakila Meals on Wheels group dining program, confirmed both incidents and said anyone 60 or older is eligible to participate in the program.
"We are not hiding anything," he said. "I talked to the woman and took care of the situation and assured her she can go into the site with her sack lunch anytime she'd like. After speaking to her I called my site leader and made it very, very clear to her that was the procedure and that is the way we are going to operate."
Ka'anehe said he has no control over the Lanakila Meals on Wheels operation.
"Lanakila has an agreement with the city. We don't have any say and don't control who they allow in or out. They have no agreement with us."
According to Ka'anehe, about 200 people use the center for some activity every month and only about half of them are Unity House retirees.
"I don't know if that is true or not," Mollring said. "As far as 50 percent of the people being outsiders, I do not believe that. They even have a large portrait of (Unity House founder) Art Rutledge hanging there. That wouldn't be there if it was a city building."
A third complaint involved a Unity House dance class.
Matusow said a man complained at a recent board meeting that he was not allowed to participate in the class because he is not a Unity House member.
In light of these incidents, the center's operation needs to be looked into, Matusow said.
The Pauahi Recreation Center, on North Pauahi Street in Chinatown, near 'A'ala Park, is a plain, two-story brown building with a Hawaiian quilt pattern decorating the first floor.
"It is a public recreation center for senior citizens," Mollring said. "I resent the fact that when we go in there for our monthly (neighborhood board) meetings, I see all these signs for Unity House. It's like they have taken it over."
The board asked fellow member and mayor's representative Alvin Au to look into the situation.
City Councilman Mike Gabbard, chairman of the parks committee, said he is looking into use of the center, and if it is being restricted either by the food service or the availability of classes, he will schedule a parks committee briefing to determine how to stop it.
"My take on it is the private use of the city's public facilities should not be at the exclusion of the public," Gabbard said. "If that is happening, we need to stop it. I'm trying to find out if this is a widespread problem or an isolated incident."
City spokeswoman Costa said that city parks director Bill Balfour went to the center last week to investigate the situation and was satisfied that the public could attend classes and use the facility.
"We have a memo of understanding that there is to be no restriction on anybody that wants to take classes or any of the recreational things held there," Costa said.
Costa said that once a class is full, Unity House can refuse an applicant, just as with any other city program. She said the Pauahi center is unique because it is the only city recreation facility run by an outside group and was "grandfathered in" to its current situation.
"The parks department is always operating with reduced revenues," Costa said. "If this is a plan that benefits the public and nobody is excluded, it would be a win-win situation."
According to Unity House signs in the window, the Pauahi center is open Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.; Monday until 3 p.m.; Wednesday to 5 p.m.; and Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon. That totals 34 hours per week.
A similar facility, the Stevenson Recreation Center, is open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., a total of 42.5 hours.
City Councilman Rod Tam said the lack of proper signs may be part of the problem.
"It could be a problem of perception," Tam said. "They see the signs that say Unity House around and think, 'Oh, that is not for me. I can't go in there.' Maybe they should have a sign saying the public is welcome to join so there is no question."
Reach James Gonser at firstname.lastname@example.org or 535-2431.