Feature Article - April 2009
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Reaching Out

Recreation in Underserved Communities

By Stacy St. Clair


Reach Out to San Francisco

Across the bay, plans have already begun on the new Shih Lu-Yang Central YMCA building in San Francisco. The facility, which will replace a somewhat outdated and space-starved Y, serves a diverse community that includes the famous city's Tenderloin neighborhood, an artistic community known for its low-income immigrant populations and single-room occupancy hotels. Its service area also includes professionals, seniors and students from nearby Hastings College of Law.


The architects tapped to design the facility, Michael Willis Architects (MWA) and ELS Architecture and Urban Design, relied upon the expertise of the YMCA staff, which has a long history of understanding the community's recreation and fitness needs. To encourage the conversation, officials held a charrette to discuss the community's vision for the project. Participants were encouraged to share their wish list, regardless of price.

"You try to keep cost out of the discussion," said David Petta of ELS Architecture and Urban Design, the principal-in-charge of the project. "You don't want to stifle creativity."

As a result, Shih Lu-Yang patrons soon will be enjoying a state-of-the art facility with an indoor pool, gymnasium, senior center, youth center and workout facility. There will also be a rooftop garden that can be used for both meditation and gardening classes.

The design offers several features that address the needs of underprivileged patrons. The facility, for example, has a kitchen where teens will learn to cook healthy meals with vegetables grown in their rooftop garden. Plans also call for an indoor pool, a staple feature in almost any YMCA.

"Putting pools in disadvantaged neighborhoods is a great thing to do," Petta said. "You're giving someone the opportunity to learn how to swim. That's a great gift to give someone."

The most impressive design choice, however, may be the decision to place the fitness center—the area which traditionally gets the most traffic—on the top floor. As they work out, patrons will be treated to a breathtaking view of the city and with it, Petta hopes, a sense of empowerment.

"The penthouse is usually occupied by the people with the most money," Petta said. "This is just the opposite of that. Patrons will have a view of the city they might not otherwise see."