In late October, the YMCA of Greater
Hartford announced it was selling its building on the corner of
Jewell and Pearl streets to Northland Investment Corp., who would
build a $117 million, 18-story condominium/ apartment tower on the
The Y said it would keep a presence
in downtown by leasing space on the second floor of Northland's
Hartford 21 tower, on the site of the former Hartford Civic Center
mall. The plan is to move the executive offices there, as well as
the adult literacy program and part of the fitness center. There
would be no basketball gym, racquetball/handball courts or swimming
Belatedly, a group of Y members is
fighting the closure. Bill Booker, a member, said almost 250 members
have signed a petition asking the Y to reconsider the decision.
They've written letters and consulted a lawyer about possible legal
action. The Y and Northland have not yet signed the sale agreement,
though negotiations are ongoing.
The Y had been planning changes at
the downtown facility for several years, but until the fall, the
plans hadn't generated much controversy. The original idea was to
take down its 11-story tower building, which contains 145 dormitory-style
rooms, and get out of the temporary housing business.
The reason for that is a change of
clientele. The old paradigm, the young guy who needs a room while
he trains in the insurance industry, has given way to many clients
who suffer from mental, physical or substance abuse problems - problems
that the Y is unequipped to deal with.
It's too bad, but it made sense and
there weren't many arguments against it. The original plan was to
consolidate in a more compact facility downtown, probably - though
it hadn't been finally decided - and keeping a major fitness center.
But then the Hartford real estate market heated up, and investors
were - for the first time in decades - interested in land around
Bushnell Park. With a presumably hefty price for the 1.3 acres on
Jewell Street, the Y saw a chance to build a new facility in North
Hartford and strengthen its neighborhood programs in the South End.
Tom Reynolds, the Y's vice-president
for development services, said he and his staff are negotiating
for use of a gym and pool in or near downtown with free parking
and easy access for Y members.
He said the Y is trying to retain day
care and all of its other downtown programs either at the new facility
or at other sites in the city.
By selling the downtown site and expanding
elsewhere, the Y figures it can serve another 4,000 to 8,000 people,
Reynolds said. He said some other cities across the country have
gone the same route.
The Y is a wonderful organization,
one that has survived in Hartford for more than 150 years. But as
those of us who remember the majestic building they demolished in
the 1970s know, the Y's leadership is not immune from making a mistake.
As Booker and others see it, the downtown
members, and downtown itself, are being shortchanged. Booker dismisses
the new fitness center as "a row of treadmills." That's
a bit of an understatement, but the new place certainly sounds more
like an executive health club than a Y.
But it isn't just the pool or the gym.
In a city such as Hartford that endures de facto racial segregation,
the Y is one of the few places where people of all ages, races and
economic means mingle together. "It's a unique melting pot,"
Bart Russell, another member, said
the thought of losing "all these interactions, all these real
connections" is "tearing everybody apart."
Booker wondered if building in the
North End and South End would actually reinforce the city's patterns
of segregation. I don't know - kids from all parts of the city go
to Y programs - but it won't be the same.
I also wonder if the very bright guys
at Northland wouldn't want a YMCA gym, pool and racquetball courts
in their building. Indeed, with people finally moving downtown,
the timing here isn't good.
For all of this, it may be too
late to do anything about it. At the very least, the Y and Northland
ought to have an open meeting with the membership, to lay it all
out. A strong YMCA is indicative of a healthy downtown. Something
significant is being lost, and a lot of people would like a better
explanation of why.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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