Theirs Is To Question Y Members Grumble As Ymca Gym Becomes Health Spa

Posted: January 12, 1987

It's early evening and Greg Perry, a City Center insurance adjuster, slips into old shorts, T-shirt and running shoes and turns his attention to putting some mileage on his trim, 34-year-old body.

He climbs the stairs to an indoor track and begins his fitness routine - jogging along the deeply banked circuit that overlooks the basketball court at the Central YMCA at 15th and Arch streets. With each lap, he's reminded of his belief that something has gone terribly wrong on the old gym floor below.

Beneath him lies the evidence that the gymnasium at the 80-year-old building is no more. The worn wooden floor where Perry and his friends once waged rim-rattling bouts of basketball is covered with pre-formed columns, strips of metal and layers of plaster dust.

"It's more or less a tragic thing," Perry said later over the din of the shower in the men's locker room. "They're pretty much running the everyday basketball player, the everyday jock, out . . ."

For more than a month, the sounds of team sports such as basketball and volleyball have been replaced by the sounds of workers. Before Perry's eyes, the city's oldest and largest YMCA is transforming itself.

The institution's leadership says the $4.5 million renovation is turning a smelly, dilapidated facility into a state-of-the-art fitness center that will better serve the Y's 1,800 current members and attract many more.

A vocal minority of the membership maintains the Y is being gussied up to attract more affluent members, destroying the very character of the place as an inexpensive common person's place of sport and relaxation. They shake their heads over the demise of full-court basketball to make way for a second running track and computerized exercise bikes.

Members such as Harry Evans, 40, aren't happy about ski simulators and art deco decor.

"The personality here was mature," said Evans, a 20-year member. "I'm not looking for the '80s type of person. People here are down to earth."

P. Micki Singleton, a 12-year Y member, has started a petition drive to protest the changes.

"When they start talking juice bars, they're talking spa," said Singleton, an analyst for Bell of Pennsylvania. "They are trying to attract a different clientele at the expense of the existing clientele."

Similar concerns are being voiced across the country as Ys from Los Angeles to Washington modernize and, in the process, glamorize.

Where the Philadelphia basketball court once was there will be a three-lane track surrounding a 38-piece exercise and fitness testing center known as ''the Infield." In the Infield will be high-tech treadmills, exercise bicycles, rowing machines and a ski simulator with videotaped snow scenes.

When construction is finished in the spring, the Y will also have expanded Nautilus and weights facilities as well as a juice bar and expanded soap and towel service for refurbished locker rooms.

This year annual membership fees rose from a bottom-line, no-frills membership of $261 to $370, which includes all new services and facilities.

Richard Betts, president of the Metropolitan Philadelphia Family of YMCAs, which operates the area's 23 Ys, discounts any suggestion the central branch is turning away from its traditional clientele or its mission to serve the whole community.

The Y, he says, is simply giving people what they want today.

"What it seems to me that (critics) are saying is that the Y must have . . . old-fashioned or outdated programs that do not meet the desires and needs of most people today," Betts said. "The Y is adapting with time."

Prompted by new city safety codes, the Y sold its crumbling upper six floors for $1.7 million in 1985. The sale financed the renovation, which also includes a 50 percent expansion of the Penn Center Academy, a Y-operated independent high school that also houses an array of volunteer community services.

The school's expansion, Betts said, forced the Y's staff to seek more efficient ways to use the facility's 60,000 square feet of sports and fitness areas.

Part of the solution was eliminating the main gymnasium. Officials of the Y say volleyball and half-court basketball can be played in a much smaller upstairs gym once the rehabilitation work is finished.

With the new track and Infield equipment, Betts said, as many as 95 people can make use of the same space a basketball game would have taken up for the benefit of only 10 people.

But with the removal of the gym, Micki Singleton argues, the Y's leadership is pushing out longtime members who enjoyed the lunch hour and after-work basketball games.

"I think they are promoting their own demise," said Singleton, who has collected more than 50 names on a petition peppered with thoughtful and angry comments from disgruntled members.

Singleton and Betts agree that 600 members have dropped out since the renovations began. Betts contends the fact that so few have left is proof of membership loyalty during a disruptive time. Singleton says it's a clear signal of dissatisfaction.

But the bottom line for her, said Singleton, a regular in the Flex fitness class, is that all the changes will destroy the Y's homey, easygoing atmosphere.

"I don't want to go to a place where you have to have sparkly tights on to work out," she said. "We're a more shorts-and-T-shirt crowd."

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