Noe Valley Voice June 2000

Mission YMCA Wants to Build a Y in Noe Valley

By Heidi Anderson

Amid the controversy surrounding Noe Valley's explosive growth, dwindling open space, and clamor for more room for recreation comes a new prospect for the neighborhood skyline. The Mission YMCA is exploring the possibility of building a full-service Y -- with pool and gymnasium-- in the heart of Noe Valley.

The site most favored by YMCA executives is the upper yard of James Lick Middle School, on Castro between 25th and Clipper streets. If built, the Noe Valley YMCA would be in addition to and not a replacement for the Mission Y's existing facility at 4080 Mission St.

"The Mission YMCA serves a huge area," explains Andy Scott, executive director of the Mission YMCA, one of 13 branches of the YMCA of San Francisco. The Mission Y spans more than a dozen neighborhoods and represents about 30 percent of the population, he says. It not only covers Noe Valley, the Castro, Glen Park, and the entire Mission District, but Bernal Heights, Potrero Hill, the Excelsior, and Visitacion Valley. "Right now, we're not able to adequately serve that population."

But why Noe Valley?

Three years ago, the YMCA commissioned a survey of residents in the Mission service area. The Winfield Group polled 829 people as to their level of interest in a new, full-service YMCA. Survey participants were also asked to rate four potential locations for the new Y: Noe and Clipper in Noe Valley, Mission and Silver in the Excelsior, Mission and 22nd in the Mission, and Third and Evans in the Bayview District.

According to the survey, Noe Valley was the overwhelming favorite among the four sites. What's more, Noe Valley residents expressed double the level of interest of other respondents.

The Winfield Group also concluded that Noe Valley residents would be able to pay for programs at a rate that would subsidize programs for needier neighborhoods in the Mission service area. The YMCA (Young Men's Christian Association), the largest nonprofit organization in the Bay Area, has long espoused a tradition of community service.

Building Would Have Pool, Parking

Judy Martens, director of senior services for the Mission YMCA, unveiled the Y's plans at the May meeting of Friends of Noe Valley. Martens, a Friend and Noe Valley resident herself, passed out a map of the Mission service area and a two-page document describing the proposal.

The Noe Valley YMCA, as currently envisioned, she said, would feature a fitness center with an aerobics studio, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a gymnasium, an indoor children's playground, a teen recreation center, and a mix of health and recreation programs for all ages, from toddlers to seniors. To satisfy the wishes of the survey respondents, it might also have a sauna, racquetball courts, and studios for dance, yoga, and martial arts.

As for the students and staff at James Lick, they would have subsidized access to the facility throughout the school day, Martens said.

According to her document, the new building would require some 40,000 to 50,000 square feet and would cost anywhere from $10 to $18 million. It would be no taller than 40 feet -- the current height limit for construction in the area -- and it would likely include a two-level, underground parking garage. "Parking would be an absolutely critical component," the handout states.

Martens admitted that the Mission YMCA is eager to expand its facilities. "We've been in the same building on Mission and Alemany since 1953, and we're busting at the seams," she said. (The current facility is roughly 11,000 square feet, and houses a senior center, a preschool, and studio space for youth dance programs.)

But she assured the Friends that the Noe Valley YMCA was a long ways from reality. "This is a five-year process," Mar-tens said, "and we can't do it without the community."

She added that the Y's next step after seeking neighborhood support would be to develop a fundraising strategy.

Martens' audience at the meeting asked lots of questions and showed polite interest in a Noe Valley Y.

But Friends member Claire Pilcher later expressed some reservations. "Many of the questions we had went unanswered," she said. "What about traffic congestion? How do they plan to buy the property from the school district?"

A Hub for the Community

Scott responds that the project is still in the exploratory stages. The Y has floated the plan at James Lick, but has not yet entered into any formal negotiations with the school district.

However, he notes, the school district has allowed school property to be used for such purposes in the past. He cited a youth center on the grounds of the San Francisco Community School operated by the Boys and Girls Club of San Francisco.

And, he points out, the Mission YMCA is currently running an after-school recreation program at James Lick, so it already has a big stake in the school.

But in his view, a YMCA is more than just buildings. "It's a community," he says. "Some of the best Y's are those without walls. It could be that we only expand the existing programs. If that's what the community decides, that's what it'll be."

Nevertheless, he hopes that local residents will give the Noe Valley Y proposal their serious consideration. "This proposed building could act as a hub."

What Will the Neighbors Think?

Closest to this hub would be the students of James Lick. The school at 1220 Noe St. now has a spacious gymnasium, locker rooms, and two large paved yards. The upper yard contains a painted-on running track and several basketball hoops.

Would the school be willing to trade that playground space for a Y with a pool?

"I'm not sold on the idea completely. The student body has to get something major out if it," says James Lick PTSA President Laurel Turner. "If only 30 students got free swimming lessons, then that would not be enough."

Turner also has concerns about traffic and safety. "We need to think about the danger of mixing cars exiting the garage with kids coming and going from school."

And she knows how valuable the yard is to Noe Valley residents. "Every 5-year-old in the neighborhood learns to ride a bike in that yard," Turner says.

Even if James Lick negotiates a satisfactory deal with the Y, she adds, it won't be a deal until the surrounding neighbors are happy. "We certainly don't want the neighbors to get upset with the school."

Meanwhile, YMCA director Scott says he welcomes questions and concerns from Noe Valley residents.

"I want the angry phone calls!" he claims. "Phoning me would be great, because to me, the minute I pick up that phone, the caller becomes part of the solution."

You can reach Mission YMCA Executive Director Andy Scott at 586-6900.