New Downtown YMCA Disappoints

I usually try to keep it positive on this website. There is so much negativity coming in from the burbs and even from within St. Louis at times that I try to be a voice from the cup-half-full perspective. I've largely stuck to my guns on that goal over the last nine years.

But, I'm going to do a little online complaining...because, I think St. Louis as a region, not just as a city, needs to have a re-kindled, candid conversation about investing in Downtown.

Are we in this together or not? Is Downtown a priority or not? I say "yes", but there are plenty of signs that the corporate and community institutions are leaning toward "no".

Downtown has lost a lot of jobs in the last ten or so years. The empty AT&T tower is just one indicator.

This lack of job growth on the region's front door step adds to the regional mantra that "Downtown is dead". You hear this from suburbanite visitors and tourists all the time. 

But they have a point. While I'll stop short of calling Downtown vibrant, it's not the fault of the citizens of St. Louis. Many people have shown up to live in and revitalize Downtown with the greatest resource a city can offer: people and places. The residential scene seems stronger than ever in many ways. The sidewalks have decent activity which now appears to be more from residents vs. daytime workers and visitors/tourists. There are dog walkers, runners and strollers in greater numbers than I've ever observed in my twenty years living here.

Lots of people are calling Downtown home and it shows.

Per the 2010 Census data, the Downtown and Downtown West neighborhoods alone added 4,651 people in a city that is bleeding residents in the northern half and sections of the southern half. Downtown and Downtown West showed a 362% and 79% bump in residents from 2000 to 2010, respectively. (source)

Yet, while the residents have come, the regional institutions and corporations have not shown up to be part of the face of our city and region.

You would think that the small handful of neighborhoods in St. Louis to see a meaningful increases in population would be viewed as a positive and reason to invest and double-down on Downtown.

Nope, not so.

The city lets infrastructure and simple quality of life policing and law enforcement fall to the curb and the regional institutions and employers haven't shown up Downtown either. Take the Centene debacle where they were willing to anchor downtown at Ballpark-ing Village, but eventually lost out to the small town of Clayton, MO (population 16,000). That was a major blow for Downtown St. Louis employment prospects. Maybe the largest missed opportunity in my lifetime as a resident.

Other major corporate employers throughout the region continue to invest in even farther reaches of the suburbs, not Downtown. Maryland Heights, Westport and Chesterfield all come to mind. 

It brings me no joy to have to report that the YMCA is the latest to join the downgrading of presence in our most high-profile part of the city. 

The Y recently moved from their former location at 1528 Locust to their new location in the MX building at 605 Locust.

Musical chairs at best, a massive downgrade in place and services at worst.

From four floors down to one. A massive decrease in weight training and aerobic areas. No pool, no basketball, no volleyball, no racquetball, no driving range, no barber shop, no place to shoot pool, no computer/reading/meditation rooms, nor indoor walking/jogging track. Just a modestly sized workout room with new equipment, locker/shower rooms and a multi-purpose room for yoga, etc.

This is a massive punch in the gut and loss of services, amenities and worse yet, a PLACE for the good and decent people of St. Louis.

I shared 42 pictures of the old Y on NextSTL back in August, 2016 if you want to see what was lost.

Yes, the new space is bright, shiny and new with lots of natural light. You now overlook the empty Railway Exchange building/former Famous Barr/Macy's. There is a surprising amount of foot traffic, dog walkers, etc. which is encouraging and kind of fun from a people watching perspective...but it's a tiny little gym.

The first time I went to check it out I asked the front desk worker I knew from the old Y where the rest of the stuff was. "This is it." she said. No basketball court, I asked? "Nope, sorry."

They downsized in massive fashion. Instead of a bullish approach to make this a flagship facility in one of the few growing areas of the region, they instead scaled back to a single room.

The worst part? The former YMCA was a gathering place for people, mainly older guys to hang out. It was one of the few places I frequented where black and white people were together in the best of ways. It had a cool, laid back vibe complete with a range of benignly tasteful to straight kick-ass soul and R&B coming from the speakers. A lot of people knew each other here and frequented this place. It was a hangout. It was a community space.

You know the best way to help racial issues in a city and region that historically has struggled with imposed and self-segregation issues? Let kids of different races and economics learn and play together. The basketball court was one such place where my middle-class white sons would walk in and be welcomed to shoot hoops or jump into a game with mainly black guys. It was a good scene, one that St. Louis needs more of. They were always welcomed on that court.

The YMCA is so out of touch if they don't recognize what they had at the former location. The lack of a basketball court in the new Y is a damn joke. The pool I am willing to accept, those are super expensive to maintain and staff, and to be honest the times I went there, it was maybe one or two people using it. But not offering a basketball and a walking track? Not cool.

With the Y deciding to strip all that they had fostered and built in the old location down to a single workout room and multi-use classroom, is just disappointing and against their mission. They stole the soul. They shut down a bona fide community space. They stole the multi-racial, multi-aged, multi-class vibe. They've now joined those who do the easy thing and vacate St. Louis as opposed to doing something special here.

This missed opportunity is one that I just can't swallow and live to forget. I wonder what the YMCA was thinking. You can usually follow the $ to understand why decisions are made, but they are not-for-profit and should have been aware of what they had built and what they chose to strip from the city.

They should have have gone high and invested in the future, instead they went low and cheap.