The DC YMCA recently decided to close its downtown National Capital location. Many community members are unhappy with the decision to sell the 37-year old location for redevelopment.
In fact, we received a letter from a reader expressing frustration (edited for clarity):
I’m sending this along as a Y community member distressed about the peremptory closure of the facility as of the end of this year…I learned about the closure Friday morning from a fellow swimmer… I am shocked at the lack of any public process whatsoever in the trade of a vital community facility for what [I] understand are condos. This seems par for course for DC… that there are no community programs or resources in downtown DC (see Franklin School) and a lack of fiduciary responsibility on the part of the Y Board. The YWCA downtown (where I swam previously) was also closed in a similar fashion to make way for the corporate office building that is there now. I hope the GGW will consider covering this matter.
As a member of the National Capital Y, I can certainly sympathize with this reader. Like others, I was also upset to learn that the branch is closing from Borderstan rather than directly from the organization, no less.
But is it really fair to characterize this as selling out to greedy developers? The YMCA’s board made the decision to sell its 37-year-old building as part of an effort to both expand programming beyond the gym and do more for communities that need help.
Situations like these, along with ones like the controversy over plans to redevelop privately-owned church land at 18th and Church Streets nearby, are a reminder of one constant in neighborhoods: places change. When I moved into Dupont Circle about four years ago, many of my favorite businesses and places didn’t even exist there yet. Change has not lessened my neighborhood; it’s made for a net gain.
Here is what other Greater Greater Washington contributors have to say:
Dan Malouff talks about the situation in the context of city amenities:
The Y may not be a park exactly, but as a community space it sort of functions like one. And sure, obviously it sucks to lose a “park.” But there are some important differences that make this a pretty understandable move for YMCA. The Y is a private organization, with private goals. It’s not like the city, or some evil developer, is forcing them to leave the neighborhood. They want to sell because they think that’s the best move for them. Why’s that? Because YMCA’s mission—their whole reason to exist—is to bring social services to underserved communities. And as much as Dupont residents may enjoy a cheap gym, they aren’t the Y’s target market. Duponters have other options. By selling their 17th Street building, YMCA will make boatloads of cash, which they can spend on improving services in parts of the city where they’re more needed.
Owen Chaput builds on Dan’s point that the Y is free to make this decision:
The YMCA’s board is selling an extremely valuable property in a prosperous neighborhood to improve its services in other (perhaps less prosperous) neighborhoods. That sounds fiscally responsible to me, and anyways it’s up to the board to decide how to use its limited resources to meet the organization’s mission.
Regardless, it’s ultimately at the discretion of the YMCA board to interpret their mission and use their assets as they see fit. If the public doesn’t like it, they can not donate to the YMCA or encourage DC government to remove any public support it offers the YMCA. Absent a contract with DC stating otherwise or evidence of some illegal activity, I don’t understand why government should have a say in whether a non-profit operates services at any particular address in DC.
Payton Chung talks about non-profits who have to make often difficult decisions:
A lot of private institutions hold land for the public purpose. But like any other business, even a non-profit will sometimes need to make decisions that might sometimes upset some of their customers or neighbors.
Ten years ago, a social services center that actually was in my backyard, in a fast-gentrifying Chicago neighborhood, sold its building for development. Unlike the people they served, or facilities in the many neighborhoods that didn’t gentrify, that organization was able to sell its building, move services closer to the families that it served, and build an endowment for the future.
On 14th St. NW, several social service organizations have used surging real estate prices as an opportunity to further their missions. In some cases, where the clientele remains in the neighborhood, the organizations have done joint-venture deals to remain on the site while developing above — as with the Anthony Bowen YMCA or Whitman-Walker Health’s Elizabeth Taylor building.
For the Central Union Mission and Martha’s Table, though, 14th St. isn’t a convenient location for their clientele. Both are using millions of dollars gained from selling their land to expand their services and to move to new locations that better serve their clients. Yet when these groups announced their plans to leave 14th St., there wasn’t hue and cry on local blogs’ message boards.
The YMCA, too, has seen its clientele leave from Scott Circle. Its membership has dropped by 70%, despite spending millions of dollars to upgrade the facilities. A decline of that magnitude would put just about anything else out of business, and it’s honestly surprising that the Y held on so long there.
Plenty of other smaller things bothered me about this letter. I once owned a condominium, and resent when the term “condos” is bandied about as if places for human beings to live are somehow a bad thing.
David Alpert says this might be the right move for more people than first meets the eye:
On a slightly different tack there is a general urbanism/planning question that comes up about whether “the market” takes care of things like recreation. Certainly we don’t let education be based on the market need; cities put public schools in rich and poor neighborhoods. They also put in parks and playgrounds.
The market often doesn’t seem to meet the need for things like parks. We’re seeing that with NoMa, where because of a mistake when the area was upzoned, there’s no place set aside for a park and a strong economic disincentive for any property owner to put one in. Plans like the one for White Flint are trying to deal with some of this by tying maximum density to provision of one of a number of public services the area needs.
In the case of indoor recreation, the market isn’t really providing fitness opportunities in low-income areas that well, which is why nonprofits like the YMCA are playing a needed role, but in the wealthier areas the market actually seems to be doing okay. There are a lot of private fitness facilities in new buildings in the downtown area. They cost more to use than the YMCA, for sure, but while I don’t know the economic circumstances of this letter writer, financial hardship might not be the reason she uses the YMCA.
For all we know, Akridge is already thinking about putting a fitness club in some of the building they plan to build.
So, personally, while I’m super-bummed to be losing my YMCA (especially that glorious pool!), I also recognize that it might well serve the YMCA’s mission to close the branch. And with YMCA Anthony Bowen a mile away, and at least four other gyms/fitness centers (to say nothing of city-owned rec facilities) as close a walk from my place as the closing Y branch, this too shall pass.
A net loss for me? Sure. A net win for the Y’s mission of serving underserved populations? Yes.
What do you think about the YMCA’s decision? Let us know in the comments.