GETTING USED TO A Y TRANSFORMED

Smaller Schenectady site shows urban focus of group at a crossroads

JORDAN CARLEO-EVANGELIST STAFF WRITER
Section: Capital Region,  Page: B5

Date: Wednesday, March 24, 2010

SCHENECTADY -- Moments after dignitaries helped cut the ribbon Tuesday on the city's new $3.5 million YMCA branch and tossed up a few ceremonial jump shots, a lunchtime a crew of middle-aged basketball players surveyed the gleaming gymnasium.


What they saw was not only part of the transformation of the part of the Center City Sportsplex, once a beleaguered city-owned eyesore begging for redevelopment, but also an organization at a crossroads.


The Capital District YMCA was caught this week in the awkward situation of christening the clean new 28,000-square-foot facility as it prepares to close another, about 15 miles away, in downtown Albany.


"This is a community that many people have walked away from in the past," said Susan Savage, chairwoman of the Schenectady County Legislature, praising the YMCA's decision to stay put.


Indeed, that's exactly what critics of the Capital District YMCA allege the organization is doing in Albany.


Acknowledging the controversy that has surrounded the closing of Albany's Washington Avenue, Capital District YMCA CEO David Brown once again sought to deflate the criticism that the Y is abandoning its urban roots for the more lucrative suburbs.


Brown called the new State Street facility "a clear indication that the YMCA is committed to the inner-city -- and especially downtowns."


"Obviously we wanted to be a part of the revitalization of downtown Schenectady," Brown said.


Earlier plans called for a branch more than double the size off near the Union College campus -- a spot now occupied by the new Golub Corp. headquarters -- but difficulties with fundraising and lease negotiations forced the Y to reconsider.


That building was designed more in line with the larger suburban YMCAs that have been built over the last two decades -- a focus of ire for devotees of the typically less extravagant urban branches.


"Really, it's worked out for the better," said Mayor Brian Stratton.


The new facility is part of an overall $30 million redevelopment of the complex -- including the addition of new office space -- by the Galesi Group.


The YMCA -- which Y officials say is more energy efficient and size-appropriate to Schenectady's 1,500 members than the existing 80,000-square-foot facility down the block -- is similar in some ways what Brown proposed in a last-ditch effort to save the Washington Avenue branch in Albany.


Citing the lack of parking as one of the factors he said is dragging the Albany branch under, Brown floated the idea of replacing that Y with a parking garage that included a smaller Y branch in it.


"This is definitely a model that we think could work downtown" in Albany, Brown reiterated Tuesday.


The new Schenectady facility features modern exercise equipment, flat-screen televisions, a spin studio, sauna, steam room and NCAA regulation-sized basketball court that will be home to the Schenectady County Community College basketball and volley ball teams.


But the smaller complex doesn't have a swimming pool or racquetball court, like the 1920s-era building it's replacing. One member of more than a decade who was working out Tuesday said that for many, that's a deal-breaker.


Despite being nearly twice the size, the older building still felt smaller, like a community, said Craig Harris, one of the noontime basketball players.


"You knew everybody," said Harris, 50. "This one's going to take a little bit. I gotta get used to it."


Gino Turchi, 93, who's been active at the Y in some way since he started going to the Schenectady branch when he was 8, said there's no comparison.


"There's no question about it," Turchi said.


"This is a 100 percent upgrade."


Jordan Carleo-Evangelist can be reached at 454-5445 or by e-mail at jcarleo-evangelist@timesunion.com.