UH spends $1.3 million upgrading empty College Hill mansion

Published: May. 22, 2013 at 9:45 PM HST|Updated: May. 23, 2013 at 12:39 AM HST
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Tom Apple
Tom Apple
Dr. Jeremy Lam
Dr. Jeremy Lam

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - In the last three years, the University of Hawaii has spent $1.3 million on repairs and upgrades to College Hill, the presidents' home that UH President MRC Greenwood has chosen not to live in. UH Chancellor Tom Apple told Hawaii News Now he's exploring the idea of turning the home into headquarters for the UH alumni office.

Scaffolding surrounds College Hill just a few blocks from the UH Manoa campus on Kamehameha Avenue. The 16-room historic home, built in 1902, has been closed since September in the second of two major construction projects since 2010.

Among the work happening now: about $89,000 for re-roofing the main house and a neighboring cottage, because the roof leaked in heavy rain.

"My understanding is that it is a historic type of roof and it is a high-maintenance roof, but we are required to keep that style, I believe, because it's such a historic building," said UH Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple, who is responsible for the maintenance of the home and its grounds.

A previous project started in May of 2010 replaced the main floor inside the house, re-did the front and back steps and renovated the aging porte cochere, which had been badly damaged by termites.  That project's base contract started at $273,000 and rose by $164,746 with four change orders, for a total of $437,746.

The newest project began last September, has been delayed several times and now is scheduled to be finished in August.  Besides re roofing, the second construction job includes installing new 2nd floor wall shingles and a solar water heater as well as spending $174,000 to repair what UH officials described as "extensive termite damage" to the lanai.

That project, whose price started at $680,000, increased with six change orders to $906,478, UH officials said.

So the university has spent a total of $1.3 million in UH on improvements to the building since 2010.

Dr. Jeremy Lam has lived next door to College Hill for 30 years.

"I think this is extreme government waste," Lam said. "I think when (former UH President Evan) Dobelle started, it was a million dollars put in and there was subsequent projects for re-roofing and doing the portico there and one project after another comes up.  And a historical residence doesn't have to be perfect."

Lam said other homes in the neighborhood also built in the early 1900s have been completely re-done for far less money, only several hundred thousand dollars.

Greenwood has chosen not to live at College Hill, partly because her partner is disabled and the 111-year-old home is not accessible to people with disabilities. The UH Regents approved paying Greenwood a $60,000-a-year housing allowance which she uses to live at an apartment in Waikiki.

There's no elevator inside College Hill, but an external wheelchair lift will be installed at the home at a cost of about $70,000.

UH officials said because no one is living there, it's the perfect time to do extensive repairs since previously they could only get access to for a week or two when former  presidents who lived in the home were traveling out of town.

Construction crews keep finding more problems, such as termites over the lanai that required another $174,000 in repairs.

Lam said he and other neighbors have been inconvenienced by the extended construction work at the site.

"I think that the noise and the dust that comes over is constant and every time you ask, it's just about finished.  It was supposed to be finished last Christmas and we're still waiting," Lam said.

Before College Hill was closed for repairs last September, it was used for a variety of UH events an average of 10 times a month.  They ranged from donor receptions, retreats and deans' meetings to dinners and administrators' meetings with Greenwood, according to a list of events UH provided Hawaii News Now.

Two projects completed when Dobelle was UH president in 2001 totaled nearly $1.1 million, and included re roofing of the home for about $92,342.  Other projects since then included $1,390 to replace screens and paint the lanai floor and railings for $23,200 in 2005.  In 2007, UH paid a contractor $12,130 to paint more of the lanai floor and $24,368 for a structural investigation of the porte cochere, which was found to be slowly sinking into the ground.

Apple wants to explore the idea of headquartering UH's alumni office at College Hill, meaning future UH presidents would no longer live there.

"Most universities have an alumni center where they can hold events to celebrate their alumni, welcome their alumni back," Apple said.

Apple said the alumni affairs staff would move out of its Bachman Hall offices and into the second-floor of College Hill, which since 1963 has been the private residence of the UH president.

The home's beautiful lawn and large lanais could continue to host alumni and other UH events.  While the first floor of the home, which features a large living room and entrance area with a grand piano, and a big kitchen, could host meals, meetings and other functions.

"We love our alumni and we want our alumni to support us and to visit us and if we don't have a spot for them to do that, it makes it more difficult," Apple said. "Maybe after you air this, I'll get some more feedback.  I like that.  I think it's really important to listen and hear from everyone."

Lam, the next door neighbor who's a pediatrician at Kapiolani Medical Center, said, "We've voiced our concerns about turning it into an office building, when it was given by the Athertons to the university to make it a presidential residence."  The Atherton family gave the property to UH in 1963.

Lam is concerned that moving alumni offices to the home would increase congestion in the neighborhood, where on-street parking is usually taken by UH students when school is in session.

"Just the amount of traffic in this area, which is very busy for the university as it is.  And the overflow of parking on the street, and things like that, when meetings occur," Lam said.

Apple said the idea to turn the mansion into an alumni center is preliminary, so he didn't have dollar estimates on the cost of converting upstairs bedrooms to offices.

UH employees familiar with alumni affairs activities questioned whether it was wise to move alumni offices away from Bachman Hall, where staffers are steps away from UH Foundation officials, the president's office, as well as the offices of the UH system's legal and public relations teams.

And the employees said expensive electrical and communications infrastructure may need to be installed on the second floor of College Hill, giving it the capacity to deal with office computers, printers, phone lines and other equipment.

(Marc Arakaki contributed to this report)

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