You might remember the TownLake YMCA as a dingy maze of darkened hallways, disjointed workout rooms and a pool with a chlorine odor so strong swimsuits practically disintegrated on the spot.
But if that seemed uninviting, you hadn’t braved the North Park branch, which some folks described as a dungeon.
It’s a whole new world at both locations of the nonprofit Y, which has spent millions in the last few years to spruce up its facilities and the programs it offers. We stopped by both locations to see what’s new.
The flagship TownLake branch downtown officially unveiled its $5.3 million, 20-month renovation in mid-January. The facility, built in 1971, added 10,000 square feet of space, bringing it to 74,000 square feet.
A light-filled new lobby incorporates the brick walls of the old structure and serves as a place to meet or relax. Kids play in a larger new child care center and exercisers can gaze out windows as they burn calories in a new cardio room. Downstairs, the slap of fists on punching bags mixes with music pumping through the free-weight room, which doesn’t look nearly as dreary as it once did. Group exercise and spinning studios are new too. The building’s air conditioning, electrical and plumbing got an upgrade, and a new UV filtration system means the club can use less than half as much chlorine in its pool.
The improvements have helped boost membership 25 percent in the last year, up to 13,600 members, says TownLake Y membership director Jude Hickey.
Still, there’s room for improvement. Parking is still an issue during peak hours and officials may add valet parking. And those cramped locker rooms haven’t been touched - yet. That’ll happen later this year, as will more pool area improvements.
The branch is getting new programs along with the new digs. A diabetes prevention program is coming, along with a locally grown Rx for Healthy Living class. Patients from Seton Medical Center's pulmonary rehabilitation program will participate in a special fitness program at the Y, too.
That, along with existing programs like a Livestrong class for cancer survivors, illustrates the Y’s shift to preventive health care, says James Finck, president of the YMCA of Austin.
"Historically, health care has been more about intervention versus prevention," Finck says. "I think it’s going to change our work from a standpoint of just having equipment where people can work out to really engaging them in what it means to have a healthy lifestyle that they incorporate into their daily activities."
Farther north, the YMCA built an all-new facility to replace the North Park branch. The sparkling YMCA North near the intersection of Rundberg Lane and Lamar Boulevard was built through a partnership with the Austin Parks & Recreation Department. The entities teamed up to use $8.9 million approved by Austin voters in the 2006 bond election to buy land and fund construction. Now the Y operates the building and its programs under a 20-year lease with the city, which owns the brick and mortar.
The 36,000-square-foot facility occupies a 6.9-acre, once weedy lot that had been frequented by drug users and prostitutes, says the branch’s senior program director, Elizabeth Hansbury. "The kids in this neighborhood didn’t have anywhere to go," Hansbury says.
Now they’ve got a teen lounge that hosted a poetry slam, a place to do homework and recreation facilities.
The branch, which opened in stages starting in November, offers a unique free community membership that gives anyone access to certain spaces, including the teen lounge, computer lab, community meeting rooms, a half-court gym and, one afternoon a week, the swimming pool.
Regular members, who pay on a sliding scale as they do at all YMCA branches, can use the health and wellness center and its assortment of exercise machines, a yoga and group exercise studio, child watch center and that four-lane, 25-yard pool, smaller instructional pool and hot tub. The center will launch a Rx for Healthy Living class, a masters swim team and kids swim league this spring.
While YMCA officials are proud of the new facilities, they say they’re not the most important thing.
"Our success is never in remodeled buildings or new branches. It’s what takes place inside the walls that matters," Finck says.