The Westport Weston Family Y has "summered" at its Mahackeno campus in northwest Westport since 1942. After more than a decade of planning, public debate and legal obstacles, Y officials on Tuesday finally marked the start of construction of a year-round home for the Y at the 32-acre site.
The Family Y will build a 54,000-square-foot complex at Mahackeno, which will serve as its new headquarters after it relocates from its current downtown location at 59 Post Road East. The Mahackeno center will include a 10-lane, 25-yard lap pool and adjacent warm-water pool for family, teaching and therapeutic uses; a health and wellness center; a multi-purpose gymnasium; three group-fitness studios; a "child watch/kids' adventure" gym area; and five locker rooms. It is scheduled to open in November 2014.
"We knew what we were doing would be good for the community," said Rob Reeves, the Y's chief executive officer. "We stayed the course and stayed positive and met all the expectations of all the governing bodies. It's the culmination of a lot of hard work over many, many years."
The groundbreaking ceremony attracted a crowd of dozens, including Y officials and members and local elected officials. They arrived at a site that has already undergone substantial preparation work ahead of construction. A large section of the Mahackeno property has been clear-cut, evidenced by a towering mound of woodchips next to the entrance road. Many of the property's existing trees will remain, while trees with a diameter of more than eight inches will be replaced by newly planted ones. Several erosion and sediment control measures have also been implemented, including the placement of a double-layer silt fence around the construction site.
Construction of the Mahackeno center culminates one of the most controversial and protracted public reviews of a major land-use project in Westport. More than a decade ago, Y officials began to contemplate a new headquarters at the Mahackeno campus, which has hosted the Y's summer camp since 1942. When they went public with that plan, Y officials faced almost immediate opposition. Many critics argued that a Mahackeno Y would rob the downtown of a crucial asset, constitute an environmental threat and strangle surrounding roadways with traffic.
The divisive, bitter tone of the public debate of the project persisted. The Planning and Zoning Commission approved a Mahackeno Y in 2008, after an extensive and acrimonious series of public hearings. After the P&Z authorized the site plan, the Y and town then grappled with four lawsuits filed against the project. The last of those appeals was rejected in January 2011 by a Superior Court judge in Stamford.
"We always had the faith that it would happen, but there were a few moments when it was pretty scary that it might not go through," said Helene Weir, the Y's chief executive officer from April 2006 to July 2008. "At the end of this day, this is going to be a fabulous thing for the community and I think everyone will be thrilled to have it."
Current Y officials also express confidence that they now have widespread public backing for the project.
"While there were, and are, differences in opinion among some members of our community regarding what we are about to build, we should all be proud that we arrived at this moment through a process that allowed all voices to be heard and all concerns to be vetted and addressed," said Jim Marpe, the chairman of the Y's Board of Trustees.
Marpe is also a Republican candidate for first selectman in this year's town election. If elected, he likely would be the town's chief elected officer when the Mahackeno Y opens.
A number of prominent critics of the Mahackeno project in recent years have indicated that they now accept that a Y center will be built at Mahackeno.
"We hope that the Y will build this project responsibly and be mindful of the town, its residents and the quality of life of the neighbors closest to the site as they go forward, " Indy Goldberg, co-director of Y Downtown, a citizen group that wanted the Y to remain downtown, said in a statement Tuesday. "We also hope that the Y will follow to the letter, the safeguards, restrictions and many conditions the town commissions have put in place and that the town will enforce those restrictions and conditions."
A number of public officials have also urged the Y to continue to seek public input on the Mahackeno center.
"There's no question that issues will come up in the future, so it's important for the Y to have a dialogue with the community, to listen and to be a good neighbor," said state Sen. Toni Boucher, R-26, whose district includes the Mahackeno campus. \
Y officials have faced other challenges since resolving the litigation against the Mahackeno complex. In particular, the Y has often struggled to meet its fundraising goals for the Mahackeno building. The Y's Boards of Directors and Trustees voted last year to first build a 54,000-square-foot center, instead of an originally planned 102,000-square-foot building, after falling more than $16 million short of their initial fundraising target.
The Y's fundraising pace has since accelerated. With $35.5 million accumulated to fund construction, the Y now stands $3.5 million short of its overall $39 million fundraising target, according to its chief development officer, Paul Bernetsky.
Y officials still plan to eventually build out the Mahackeno complex to a 102,000-square-foot capacity.
Despite the panoply of legal and fundraising obstacles their 90-year-old organization has encountered during the last decade, Y officials still maintain a bullish attitude about the Mahackeno project.
"I was asked earlier today if I ever wavered and if the boards ever wavered and the simple answer is `no,'" said Iain Bruce, the second vice president of the Y's Board of Directors. "We knew that we had to do this, that this was for the future of our community."
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