For the past 19 years, the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center has been through many ups and downs and faced numerous challenges. Today, it’s the closure of Kakaako Waterfront Park.
The whimsical-looking center, painted mostly bright yellow, sits like a lonely outpost at the corner of Ohe and Olomehani streets, next to a park that has been closed since early October. A gate blocks the road to the center’s entrance on Olomehani Street.
“I want people to know we are open,” said the center’s board chairwoman Loretta Yajima, “and we are really committed to serving the children and families.”
Despite a handmade sign that says the children’s center is open, people are often confused when they see the gates and “no trespassing” sign, she said.
The Hawaii Community Development Authority closed down Kewalo Basin, Kakaako Gateway and Kakaako Waterfront parks on Oct. 8 indefinitely to make an estimated $500,000 in homeless encampment-related repairs to exposed wires and broken plumbing.
Gates to the park were shut, blocking roads that lead to the center from both sides — at Olomehani and Cooke streets. While Kakaako Gateway, Kewelo Basin and Point Panic reopened at the end of October, Waterfront Park and its parking lot remain closed.
As a result, the center had to scale back its popular, annual Halloween party and cancel its keiki swap meet in December. The swap meet, where kids play entrepreneur by selling toys or handmade goods, has for years been held on the park lawn, drawing hundreds.
Regular preschool and toddler time classes, however, are still running and a Santa’s Secret Workshop and celebration of the museum’s 19th birthday are still on for Dec. 16, as well as an annual New Year’s at Noon celebration Dec. 31.
“To be honest with you, we’re not going to have a big (birthday) celebration this year because of parking,” said Yajima. “Hopefully for our 20th year, we’ll have a big celebration. We hope everything will be fixed up.”
Garrett Kamemoto, HCDA spokesman, said he had no actual date for the park’s reopening as of this week.
“We are hopeful that it will be open before the new year,” he said.
The center, an independently run nonprofit, is about halfway through its 40-year lease with the state. While Yajima at one time considered moving the center, she is now committed to staying.
Becky Giles of Ewa Beach continues to drop off her daughter for the preschool STEM Lab program weekday mornings. She loves the program, teachers, class size and curriculum so much that she is willing to deal with the challenges accessing the center to keep her daughter there.
“I feel like in Hawaii, this is the only place where you have a discovery center with lessons in a classroom and then you get to discover hands-on,” she said. “The teachers are incredible. It’s so reasonable, the pricing.”
Yet other parents have written in, according to Yajima, saying though they love the center’s programs, they are staying away until the mess in the park is cleaned up. The number of visitors to the center has dropped about 25 percent.
Several years ago, the center faced challenges of a different kind — with its perimeter surrounded by homeless encampments, as many as 300 tents at one point. Online reviews from 2015 give the children’s center positive ratings for its staff and programs, but mentioned the homeless camp and smells. The summer of 2015 is also when Rep. Tom Brower was beaten by homeless teens in the area.
Now, the homeless encampments are mostly gone, replaced by the challenge of finding parking in a shut-down park.
There is a small, public parking lot by the center, but it is often full. Some parents find a metered spot near the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine and walk with a stroller to the museum’s entrance. Others, like Giles, temporarily park in front of the gate and walk their kids around it get to the center.
Two decades ago, Yajima said former Gov. John Waihee’s administration invited the children’s museum to be an anchor at Kakaako Waterfront Park as part of a vision of a neighborhood where families could “live, work and play.” The center moved in 1998 from Dole Cannery in Iwilei to its current home, a converted city incinerator, following a
$15 million capital campaign.
Today, the Children’s Discovery Center offers 45,000 square feet of space, with three levels of permanent exhibits that include a rainforest-themed room on the ground floor, a cafe and reading room, complete with a giant sofa chair, pretend castle and fireplace.
Upstairs, exhibits include a life-sized replica of Honolulu’s TheBus, a Honolulu Fire Department station and Hawaiian Airlines plane with cockpit. The “Your Rainbow World” exhibit is a mini plantation village showcasing various cultures of Hawaii, with little costumes and kitchens stocked with pretend ethnic foods.
The interactive, hands-on exhibits inspired a foundation in China to recreate similar children’s museums in Beijing and Hohhot in inner Mongolia. Yajima was invited to be the museums’ senior adviser.
The furnishings and exhibits are custom-made, said Yajima, who called the museum a “labor of love.”
Looking out the window from the top floor, Yajima remembered when there used to be a keiki fun run and when schools on field trips would picnic in the park after visiting the center. The number of schools taking field trips to the center is also down about 25 percent.
“Most other children’s museums don’t have this kind of weather all year long,” she said. “We really long for the day when the park will be open again.”
She said she has invested too much into the center to move it. She’s still planning a keiki swap meet in March.
“When I get discouraged all I have to do is walk on the floor,” said Yajima. “When you see the children, how excited they are to be here, when I see parents engaged with their children, I say to myself, that is why we’re so passionate about doing this.”