Out of the Woods / Time to join hands and make the new Y better
Now that the long-awaited path to building a new 102,000-square-foot Westport Weston Family Y at Camp Mahackeno has been cleared and formal legal opposition has been withdrawn, we should all look forward to a major improvement in our community when it opens in 2014.
That is all well and good. But as a longtime member of our Y who originally opposed the move to Mahackeno, this observer is comforted by the fact that the citizens group, Downtown Y, led by Indy Goldberg, announced at the same time last week that it will not disband.
"We're not going to walk away now that we've come to this point," said Goldberg. "We're going to stay interested and hope to effect whatever positive results or changes that we can."
Initially, Downtown Y had expressed concerns about a number of issues -- including safety and traffic problems, the environmental impact of erecting a commercial structure in a residential community, whether there would be enough parking for the thousands of families that use the Y.
The project was originally approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission in 2008 after a series of public hearings and work sessions. Subsequently, four law suits were filed opposing the project -- two by resident Arthur Cohen and two by the Downtown Y.
The battle has been front and center on Westport's agenda. Town Attorney Ira Bloom, who represented the P&Z during the appeals hearings, called the project "the most divisive issue the town has faced over the last decade." Bloom, a highly competent attorney, should know. He's been around town long enough to recall many other controversial issues.
The Y's historic building was purchased in 1919 for $150,000 by E.T. Bedford, one of Westport's leading citizens, and dedicated in 1923. It was sold the Y's Board of Trustees in 2006 to the Bedford Square development group for more than $20 million, although no the deed has yet been transferred. The Y will maintain ownership until it relocates to Mahackeno.
Iain Bruce, president of the Y's board, has estimated the new building will cost approximately $40 million, thus necessitating a major fund-raising campaign.
After the Y had received a green light, Bob Reeves, the Y's chief executive officer, last Wednesday was ready to move forward. "The concerns and opposition that were raised about the Y moving -- we can put that behind us," he said. "We need to get up to Mahackeno and get this project to be successful or else the Y won't be in the community."
Compelling words, indeed, for the public to contribute to this campaign. And they should if, indeed, they want to continue the superb tradition of the Y in our town. The Y has been one of the most important mainstays of our civic life by making its facilities available to all Westporters, young and old, and even to those who cannot afford to pay full membership fees.
The Downtown Y opposition group has pledged to remain involved, and I hope everyone who wants to see a new Y as an improvement over what we have today also gets involved.
Because the downtown location was in close proximity to other services, it didn't need some features the new one should have, among them:
"¢ An on-site medical facility staffed by professionals.
"¢ A small restaurant or coffee shop where parents can wait while their children are participating in activities.
"¢ A community playroom where families of three generations can congregate for periods of time.
"¢ Telephone and computer facilities to enable people to be in contact with others outside the complex and youngsters to do school homework while waiting parents to pick them up.
"¢ On-site security protection by professionals hired by the Y
"¢ More space front-desk space those Y professionals at the front desk who already do a superb job greeting members and their guests and attending to their needs.
"¢ Regular bus service from downtown so youngsters can get there.
"¢ Orientation sessions for parents and others in the months before the new Y others so that they can familiarize themselves with the facilities, its operations and behavior code.
"¢ Men's and women's locker rooms with sufficient shower and toilet stalls and expanded saunas.
All of this sounds like a tall -- and expensive -- order. But all are needed. Community meetings should be held so parents and others can make suggestions -- perhaps even be surveyed -- about what the new Y should have.
Finally, membership fees should remain affordable for everyone in Westport, even with all of the new innovations -- a tough but doable task if managed efficiently.
Woody Klein's "Out of the Woods" column appears each Wednesday in the Westport News. He is the author of "Westport, Connecticut, The Story of a New England Town's Rise to Prominence," sponsored by the Westport Historical Society.