Seniors Feel They Were Duped Into Attending Senior Center Meeting


It was advertised as a meeting to discuss how to spend money earmarked for improvements to the Highland Park Senior Center, but according to seniors at the meeting, the proposed changes have nothing to with them or what they need.

Hosted by Los Angeles Council District 14 and the Dept. of Recreations and Parks, Monday’s meeting quickly dissolved into confusion, followed by anger, when seniors learned that the improvements would not be made to the interior of their center, but to the area surrounding the center.

At issue was how to best spend $214,000 in funding at the center located where Figueroa Street and York Boulevard converge. To the frustration of the 50 or so people, mostly seniors, at the meeting, staff representing Councilman Jose Huizar and parks and recreation told the group they were not there to discuss problems with toilets or furniture upgrades, but about adding improvements to the exterior such as outdoor exercise equipment.

CD-14 staffer Nate Hayward, right, explains plans for upgrades to Highland Park Senior Center. (EGP photo by Jacqueline García)

CD-14 staffer Nate Hayward, right, explains plans for upgrades to Highland Park Senior Center. (EGP photo by Jacqueline García)

“Why do we want fitness equipment if the toilets don’t work?” responded one angry seniors

It was a sentiment echoed by others, including several seniors who said they don’t use the area now and have no plans to in the future, even if improvements are made.

Proposed upgrades could also include new outdoor benches, landscaping and an area for a Christmas tree lighting. The plan also includes replacing half the parking lot located adjacent to York and Figueroa with green space.

“We are looking to have an area [that’s] less of a parking lot and more of a park for people to walk around,” explained CD-14 staffer Nate Hayward. “There will also be a location for monument signs and the name of the park,” added Androohy Avenessian, parks and recreation architectural associate.

None of the ideas, however, generated much interest among the seniors who were more focused on how they were “deceived” into attending the meeting than giving input, which they made clear by refusing to draw what they would like to see on maps of the park set out by the city.

Why are we here, the seniors repeatedly questioned. This meeting isn’t about helping seniors, it’s about the larger community and should have been advertised that way, several people said.

In reality, none of the funds are going to be used for upgrades to the “deteriorating” center, or its woefully inadequate programs for seniors, several people lamented.

“Why do you use the name of the senior center [to discuss]improvements that we won’t use?” said another upset senior after viewing satellite images showing only the northeast side of the park, an area adjacent to a newly opened Starbucks.

“Is it for the seniors or for the Highland Park community?” another senior wanted to know.

Hearing that Starbucks and the property’s owner donated $20,000 each – $40,000 in total – of the $214,000 to be spent on upgrades only seemed to further convince the unhappy gathering that the plan all along was to make improvements that would benefit the Starbucks location, which several media outlets recently dubbed the most “depressing” Starbucks in the coffee chain.

“We are saying that this is not for our benefit, this is [for]a business. They want more money” to make the area around them more attractive, said Irene Carrillo, who has been going to the center for 15 years.

“They rent [the senior center area]for a church, now the Starbucks [because]they need beautification, they rent it to the Christmas tree sales people, and what do we get?” she questioned speakers angrily.

Dan Mellankoff owns the property where the Starbucks is located. He told EGP that he agrees with the seniors and thinks “It’s good that they address their concerns because that means that [the area]will be better.”

Earlier this year, Huizar announced that he had secured a $150,000 Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) under his Clean Streets initiative to fix the Highland Park Senior Center and area surrounding it. Another $15,000 was added from Quimby development and a donation of $9,000 was given by HBO’s “Togetherness,” a TV series that films regularly in Northeast L.A. The $40,000 donation from Starbucks and Mellankoff was added to the revenue.

People often have different visions about how funds should be spent, and that’s why districts hold these types of meetings, Huizar spokesman Rick Coca told EGP about the need for the meeting.

“Look at York Park, people asked for it and they got it,” said Coca. “It is very important to notice the improvements that have been done,” he said. “People need to talk so we can hear them,” he added.

Which is exactly what seniors attempted to do Monday.

When are you going to fix the floors, paint, replace broken chairs and renovate the kitchen, they wanted to know. Make it easier for seniors with mobility problems to get inside, they said, only to be told that those discussions would have to take place at another time.

Tina Hamilton has been going to the Highland Park Senior Center for 25 years and told EGP that the money available should be used to fix the interior of the center. “We have people in walkers, we need the fitness equipment to do leg exercise, but [in]here,” not 200 feet away, she said.

Garvanza resident Charles Miller said seniors need a “safe drop off” point and people who use public transportation need safe sidewalks. A reasonable amount of the money should be spent to improve the accessibility of the center, Miller said. “We asked Starbucks for a concession to fix that area and to help us fix it,” he said.

Responding to the dust up, Huizar, who was not at the meeting, told EGP via email that there are plans to make many of the upgrades seniors are requesting.

“In my short time as their representative since redistricting, my office has brought a renewed focus to bring much-needed improvements to the Highland Park Senior Center,” the councilman said. He cited repairs that have resulted in seniors no longer having to “dodge dangerous cracks and uneven sidewalks.”

Huizar said he plans to work with seniors and the community at large “to bring necessary upgrades, such as remodeling the bathrooms, building ADA ramps and an access walkway to the center itself.”

He said his office will work with seniors to indentify problems and provide for the other areas at the center not covered by the current funding guidelines.

Twitter @jackieguzman
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