YMCA downtown has a new building, but same commitment to community

Four years after closing its doors, the 70-year-old downtown YMCA has reopened with a new name and a new building. But though the facility has been completely revamped except for a heritage facade along Burrard Street, the new Robert Lee YMCA has kept its emphasis on connection to the local community.

Since it reopened May 3, membership has grown to about 2,000 (numbers were down to about 1,700 when the old facility closed its doors in 2006), says general manager Simon Adams. He’s hoping those numbers will grow to 5,000 by the end of the year and that membership will eventually climb to reach the building’s 10,000 member capacity.

I recently toured the six-storey facility with Adams, starting with the spacious, airy atrium. On one side was the Sanctuary, a room for meditation, prayer and reflection that radiates a zen-like calmness. Across from it, floor to ceiling picture windows overlook the swimming pool. There are benches by the windows, allowing people to look at the swimmers doing their laps or pool exercise classes. The pool is flooded with natural light -- large windows overlook Barclay Street; a marked contrast from the pool in the old facility, which was located below ground.   

Adams pointed out two innovative -- and local -- technologies in use in the pool: the lighting system works by projecting a ray of light down a tube, eliminating the need to change the lights by erecting scaffolding or ladders over the water. It was developed by a UBC professor, he says. And the pool floor can be raised or lowered (allowing use for therapy groups and others in shallower water) by flicking a switch -- a technology developed by a Surrey company and first used at the Tong Louie YMCA in that city. The pool itself is UV-filtered, cutting down on the amount of chlorine required.

As we climb the stairs to the exercise floors, Adams points out other environmental initiatives. About one-third of the material used to construct the building was reclaimed, he says. Use of drywall was kept to a minimum. Heat is supplied by the city’s steam system and is cleverly circulated through the building for maximum effect. Even the membership cards are made from recycled material and are biodegradable.

We stop to watch a group of ESL students play basketball in the gymnasium. The gym floor, Adams says, has been built to NBA standards, using wood from a local flooring company. The gym can be used for both sports and fitness classes by deploying the motorized wall, he says.

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