Code violations threaten East Palo Alto gym

Eugene Jackson, director of Youth Reach, says he can't afford to maintain his free gym if the city won't let him host income-generating parties there.

Seven months ago, Vaita Mataele weighed 260 pounds.  When friends encouraged the 21-year-old East Palo Alto resident to lose weight, she looked at them like they were crazy.

“I’m like, ‘but I’m Tongan.  We eat pig’,” she recalled.  “I didn’t think that a Polynesian could, you know, exercise.”

Then a funny thing happened. Mataele picked up a sport she had never played before — rugby — and started going to an industrial warehouse at 2470 Pulgas Ave., where a former ultimate fighter nicknamed “The Wolf” offered her team free fitness coaching. The warehouse became a kind of home, “The Wolf,” whose real name is Eugene Jackson, its tattooed patriarch.

Mataele lost 60 pounds and wasn’t looking back – until her three-day-a-week workout regimen was interrupted by the city of East Palo Alto.

At a city council meeting last week, officials outlined 15 building code violations found at Jackson’s makeshift gym, which, if not addressed, could result in the facility being shuttered sometime this year. The problems range from insufficient parking to a lack of fire sprinklers and proper emergency exits to a mezzanine that has been deemed structurally unsound.

A fire in a neighboring auto repair shop in September 2008 first brought the warehouse — part of a larger industrial complex next to a vacant, grassy lot — to the city’s attention. An August 2009 inspection by the Menlo Park Fire District revealed a multitude of code violations.

In many instances, Jackson wouldn’t be in violation if fewer than 50 people used the warehouse. But the space hosts a trio of interlocking groups Jackson leads: Youth Reach, a mentoring program that focuses on “physical and spiritual fitness;” the Gladiator Training Academy, where aspiring mixed martial artists practice boxing, wrestling, Jiu Jitsu and Muay Thai; and the Soul Brothers, a local multi-ethnic motorcycle club.

The building also has been the site of periodic nightclub-style parties, some of which have drawn more than 400 people, each paying a $15 entrance fee. The dozen or more parties in the past few years have raised enough money, Jackson said, to fund his other operations.

City zoning laws permit a low-occupancy warehouse on the site. Jackson knew that when he began renting the property in 2006 and “put himself at a disadvantage” with the city because he never sought a permit to use it as clubhouse and gym, said Lance Bayer, a contract attorney working for East Palo Alto on the case.

The city’s chief building official, Frank Rainone, said he is willing to give Jackson and the warehouse’s owner additional time to complete the required upgrades and obtain a proper use permit. A Sept. 15 deadline has come and gone.

Jackson, a father of five, said he pays $4,000 a month in rent. Without being able to host parties, he said, his other activities are unsustainable and paying for the upgrades is out of the question.

He said he has spent $50,000 on improvements to the building and estimates bringing it up to code would cost another $30,000.

“I realize he’s doing something good for the city, and I want to continue to help him,” Rainone said. “But I can only help him so much. I don’t have enough money to be able to lend him to make this work.”

At last week’s meeting, City Councilman A. Peter Jackson and Vice Mayor Carlos Romero said that Jackson’s youth fitness programs and Soul Brothers add value to the East Palo Alto community. They stressed, though, that the building code violations must be addressed.

African Americans, Latinos and Pacific Islanders — who make up 90 percent of East Palo Alto’s population — and the poor have the highest rates of being overweight and obese in San Mateo County. Many who showed up at the city council meeting said Jackson’s gym is a place where they feel comfortable – and motivated – to work out. And they can afford it, because it’s free.

A typical workout features people from a wide spectrum of ethnic backgrounds, body types and ages. Men, women and children group into pods and move through a circuit of exercises according to their fitness level. Sessions end with a huddle and a cheer: “Family.”

“If you’re trying to run [these people] out of town, you’re doing a good job of that,” council member Jackson said. “If you’re not trying to run them out of town, all I’m saying, Mr. Rainone, is let’s get with these people, and say, ‘you’re a part of our community.’ ”

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