Community Boards

92nd Street Y and YMCA

Vie to Build Downtown Center

For as long as anyone can remember, downtown residents have been trying to lure a major recreational and cultural facility to their neighborhood. Following Sept. 11, promises to shore up lower Manhattan bolstered the community’s hopes for getting their very own center. Now, two of the city’s most respected nonprofit institutions are vying for the opportunity to give it to them.

Responding to renewed entreaties from the local community board and assurances from government officials that money would soon be pouring into lower Manhattan, last summer the YMCA and the 92nd Street Y each submitted plans for a downtown center to Community Board 1. The board worked with the two organizations to help determine the types of programs and facilities the new center would offer.

“We wanted to play a role in what type of facility it is,” said district manager Paul Goldstein. “We’re well aware of what the needs are.”

For months, members of Board 1 evaluated the two proposals, considering both the neighborhood’s immediate recreational needs and the wider aim of attracting more people and businesses to lower Manhattan through cultural and educational programs.

At its public meeting on Feb. 25, the full board discussed both proposals and questioned representatives from each institution before putting the matter to a vote. During the proceedings, board members could hardly contain their enthusiasm.

“I think both institutions are wonderful, and that we’d be well served if either one were selected,” said board member Jeff Galloway. “I’m not sure there are any weaknesses in either group, but their strengths are different.” Some found it so hard to choose that they recommended the two institutions join forces to operate the facility.

Paul Custer, vice president of operations for the YMCA, and Sol Adler, executive director of the 92nd Street Y, were equally enthusiastic about moving to the neighborhood. Both assured the board that local residents would have a hand in developing the center’s programs. Sectarianism would not be a problem.

In the end, board members were more convinced that the 92nd Street Y would be able to provide good athletic programs than they were that the YMCA could provide good cultural and educational programs, despite the YMCA’s plans to collaborate with local cultural institutions.

“The 92nd Street Y has more experience in intellectual and cultural areas than the YMCA, and the 92nd Street Y has recreational programs that rival the YMCA’s,” said board member Barry Skolnick. Most board members agreed with him, voting to support the 92nd Street Y in its bid to build (or acquire) a 24/7 facility of 200,000-plus square feet.

Over the next year, the Y will further study the feasibility of a downtown center. The fund-raising effort for the estimated $100 million to $200 million construction project will simultaneously start in earnest. The community board, through its fund-raising arm, plans to help raise money by reaching out to local residents and politicians, among others. Madelyn Wils, Board 1 chairwoman and board member of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, has said that the corporation would consider contributing start-up funds, although it’s already overwhelmed by the multitude of proposals it has received.

While the exact amenities won’t be decided upon until further down the road, the Y’s current proposal includes, among other things, meeting and performance spaces, art and dance studios, recreational facilities, a library, a senior center, a nursery school and office space. There are tentative plans for a café and retail outlets as well.

“We think we can build a wonderful facility in lower Manhattan,” Mr. Adler told the board. “This community deserves a high-caliber, unifying cultural and community center.”

Meanwhile, the YMCA has pledged to continue seeking funds for its center, and will soon submit a formal proposal to the LMDC. According to Anvernette Hanna, the YMCA’s director of communications, two Y’s are not too much. Besides, the YMCA’s plans for a downtown branch date back to the year 2000, when the institution inaugurated a $150 million capital campaign.

“Our organization, regardless of whatever else happens, has always planned to build a facility in lower Manhattan,” Ms. Hanna told The Observer . In fact, the YMCA is already working within the downtown community, with a branch in Chinatown and a partnership with the new Millennium High School, which will move from its temporary home in midtown to lower Manhattan next school year.

“We’re involved in the community in ways that go beyond our usual swim-and-gym image,” said Ms. Hanna, emphasizing that the YMCA’s new downtown branch would offer not only athletic facilities but also educational programs for children, adults and seniors.

A few years ago, downtown residents despaired of ever having a community center to call their own. Now, it looks like they may end up with two.

“[Sept. 11] has had a few positive ramifications for us,” Mr. Goldstein told The Observer . “As much damage as it has done, it has also piqued the interest of major organizations to want to come down and help in the rebuilding. We’re very grateful.”

-Megan Costello

March 5: Board 4, Hudson Guild–Fulton Center, 119 Ninth Avenue, 6 p.m., 212-736-4536; Board 10, Harlem State Office Building, 163 West 125th Street, second floor, 6 p.m., 212-749-3105.