When a group of University of Hawaii students campaigned in 2006 to revamp their Manoa campus center, they envisioned a state-of-the-art complex that would include fitness facilities and more space to study and socialize. There would be a range of other upgrades to the three-decade-old student union, too.

The students garnered widespread support from the UH community: more than 2,500 petition signatures from their peers, a resolution of support from the student government and the approval of the Board of Regents, which later that year authorized significant student fee hikes to help pay for the multiphase project.

But many of those students will likely never get to make use of the vast construction project that includes a two-story 64,000-square-foot recreation center replete with a multipurpose gym, indoor jogging track and fitness center for cardiovascular and weight training.

The center is slated for completion this October, in the middle of the fall semester — nearly a year behind schedule. For now, the new facilities are hidden behind towering wooden barricades that block off existing walkways and require people to navigate a maze of ad hoc paths to get around. The area, meanwhile, hums with the grind and buzz of tractors, hammers and other tools; a daily nuisance for students who are trying to study.

And it has been like that since 2010.

“Of course we don’t want delays, but they’ve happened,” said Matthew Nagata, a UH Manoa undergraduate student who chairs the Campus Center Board. “We’re just trying to address them and move forward.”

In explaining the holdups, those familiar with the project point to a range of unforeseen setbacks, including infrastructure and utility problems, issues with various contractors and impromptu revisions to the plan. The delays, according to university officials, were inevitable and necessary in order to move forward with the original plan.

UH Spokeswoman Jodi Leong emphasized in an email, “We expect that the project will be completed this fall as planned, albeit later than originally desired.”

There are also issues related to the project’s funding. Students have been helping to foot the bill since 2007 through the so-called Campus Center Operations and Recreational Fee. A mandatory student fee that was put into place to fund the project’s basic operating costs and to cover debt payments on revenue bonds, it started out at $45 per semester but has quickly risen to $175 per term.

Other funding sources include $14 million in general obligation bonds from the Legislature and private donations through the University of Hawaii Foundation.

The project, which includes three phases, is expected to cost about $46.5 million.

Nagata says that the project has been completely student-driven, from the proposal to increase fees to the kinds of amenities are being included in the complex.

Public hearings found that students wanted the kind of student union that’s already commonplace at many universities across the country, Nagata said — one that makes students want to stay on campus, provides convenient places to gather or study and offers facilities where they can exercise and engage in sports.

Currently, UH Manoa students only have access to a small fitness center on the lower part of campus near the Stan Sheriff Center. It is far over capacity, and at rush hour it can be difficult to find a spare machine, Nagata said.

Moreover, he said, seating space is extremely limited in the existing campus center. (The university last year opened a full-service Starbucks as part of the renovation project, but it’s cramped and students rarely find a place to study. The next phase of construction includes an expansion of the Starbucks so that it opens up to an outdoor terrace.)

“We’re trying to create that community, that sense of belonging,” Nagata said. “A place where I can go to school in the morning, go to classes, hang out, have lunch, go to the gym in the afternoon.”

UH Manoa Rec Center
University of Hawaii

UH Manoa recreation center project rendering

The project’s second phase encompasses the most far-reaching renovations, including the recreation center, the outdoor Starbucks terrace and updates to the campus’s iconic monkey pod courtyard, all of which will be equipped with energy-saving technology. (Although it is slated for completion in October, officials still have to figure out key details, such as whether alumni will have access to the fitness facilities and how late they’ll stay open.)

The third phase, which is expected to cost about $7 million, will entail major upgrades to the existing campus center, although it doesn’t yet have a timeline, Nagata said.

Officials say delays due to unpredictable circumstances have held the construction up at various points over the years, a problem that officials say isn’t uncommon for large-scale state projects such as this one, particularly because the final product is constantly evolving.

The general contractor for the second phase encountered unforeseen conditions at the work site, including unstable foundations and the discovery of an unmarked pipe, according to Tom Ryan of Honolulu Builders. His company also had to tear down one of the historic buildings after it was proved to be structurally dangerous.

“There were a lot of issues that have to do with an older campus that’s unmarked,” Ryan said. “I don’t think the university had any reference as to what was there.”

Honolulu Builders and the construction management company Mitsunaga & Associates experienced their share of other setbacks, as well.

Both those firms have had significant turnover during the project. They included the departure of the Honolulu Builders’ project superintendent and project engineer, and the retirement of two key Mistunaga & Associates staff. Representatives of both firms said the positions were refilled almost immediately.

Nagata said that, despite the delays, the project has retained widespread support — even from the students who are paying fees and grappling with the construction annoyances and delays even though they might never get to use the facilities.

“It’s kind of like something they’re giving to the next generation,” he said. “They’re happy knowing their alma mater is becoming more updated, more modernized … We have to endure it now, but the benefit later will be greater.”

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