Following the YMCA's sudden announcement in late June that the organization would be closing its Page Mill Road facility in Palo Alto this fall, members have expressed outrage over the decision, angry that they were not consulted beforehand and suspicious of the reasoning behind the closure of the 35-year-old community institution.
"This is a community. This is not the closing of a Walmart or 7-Eleven," said Paul Doiron, one of more than 20 members who gathered outside the gym Tuesday morning to air their concerns about the closure. "This is a very unique and special place. Everybody is vehemently opposed to this decision that we were broadsided (on). ... There was no discussion."
YMCA leadership maintains that the impending end of its lease of the basement space at 755 Page Mill Road meant re-evaluating whether renewing the lease for another 10 years, which would mean a host of renovations they view as necessary, was worth it.
"The board of directors assessed the situation thoroughly before making the decision, and it was really hard for them," said Elizabeth Jordan, chief operations officer of the YMCA of Silicon Valley. "They did not want to impact people, but unfortunately, we have the biggest responsibility as a not-for-profit to be able to put our resources where they have the greatest impact. Signing onto a 10-year lease in a property that was really at the end of its useful lifespan is just something we couldn't do."
Jordan said plumbing that leads into the facility's whirlpools is 30 years old, breaks down often and needs to be updated, but some parts are no longer available. The gym's downstairs cycling room has "extremely poor ventilation," she said, but rebuilding the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system would cost close to $150,000 -- not including the costs of getting construction equipment into the basement.
Signing onto another 10 years would mean replacing a lift installed on a stairwell to carry members who cannot walk up or down stairs with an elevator, Jordan said, and "figuring out where to put that and where to install it is insurmountable."
"It would have cost an inordinate amount of money to make it work," she said.
Members have also complained about the lack of natural light in the underground facility, but there's no way to build up or even out, she added.
Many of the members gathered on Tuesday said they don't mind the lack of light, have never complained about it and are pleased with the facility.
"We'd be happy to have it stay the way it is," one man said. "We like it. There's no reason to close it. From the customer's point of view, there's no reason to close it."
"The facility itself is no great thing but it is adequate," member Sandra Weiss said. "It's the instructors, the classes they give. ... People like the equipment ... but the big thing really is the people and the community. It's astounding."
What members are most upset about is the loss of this deeply connected, supportive and comfortable community that they say does not exist at the other local YMCAs to which Page Mill members could transfer when Page Mill closes on Oct. 1. The closest locations are the Palo Alto Family YMCA on Ross Road in Palo Alto and the Lewis and Joan Platt East Palo Alto Family YMCA on Bell Street; a bit farther flung are the Sequoia YMCA in Redwood City and the El Camino YMCA in Mountain View. Page Mill members can patronize any of these gyms -- or any Bay Area YMCA -- now and through Dec. 31 for free, Jordan said in June. In January, the organization will ask members to select a "home branch" they would like to join, which they can do without paying the standard joining fee.
Page Mill members are concerned that the other gyms will not be able to accommodate an influx of transferring members, especially the Ross Road facility, which many say is overcrowded.
Magen Jensen, who's been a YMCA member since 1980, said on Tuesday that the Palo Alto Family YMCA does not compare to Page Mill.
"I just came from Ross," she said. "You're always fighting for parking, for showers, and children are running around; there's lots of noise. ... It's a totally different environment. This (Page Mill) has been home for all of us."
The Palo Alto Family YMCA serves 4,201 membership units -- which could be a single person or a family -- compared to Page Mill's 1,401 units, according to David Low, YMCA of Silicon Valley's director of marketing communications. The East Palo Alto gym serves 991 units and Redwood City, 1,740.
"In any comparison of membership size, it's important to recognize that no two Y locations are identical," Low noted in an email. "Each is unique in size, amenities and programming, which is why you see a wide variation among Y's in the area."
Jordan said they are not worried about crowding at the other YMCAs, citing the fact that 45 percent of Page Mill members live outside of Palo Alto and so, come October, might chose a gym near where they live -- whether or not that is a YMCA facility.
"We anticipate that they will either look for a location closer to home if they want to stay with the Y or they may choose one of the other options in the area that provides fitness programming," she said.
Page Mill's membership demographics also differs from other local facilities, with a higher percentage of adult membership than the nearby Y's, Low said. Approximately 23 percent of Page Mill members are older than 65 years old compared to 14 percent at the Palo Alto Family YMCA and 21 percent at the Redwood City gym, he said.
Older members say they feel more comfortable and welcomed at Page Mill than other locations they have visited. Many view the closure as an indication that the YMCA's model is becoming more family- and youth-oriented rather than senior-friendly.
Many who spoke Tuesday have been members for more than 20 years; one 59-year-old woman joined at 24 when she was unmarried and with no children and has brought her entire family through the facility.
A younger mother with two daughters, one 5 and one 7, has also been going to Page Mill since before she was married and with children. Her parents also belong.
Members said that they're prepared to fight the YMCA's decision and are considering taking legal action against the organization. Member Chuck Kinney said Tuesday that he has consulted with two members who are attorneys about this possibility. The attorneys refused to comment for this story, and Kinney said they are not sure what specific legal action they could take.
"We'd prefer not to (take legal action), but it may come to that point," he said.
A petition circulating to keep Page Mill open had more than 300 signatures on Tuesday. But if leadership won't change their mind -- and Jordan has said the recent outcry has not impacted the decision, which will not be reversed -- they said they're ready to go elsewhere.
"If they do close, and I hope they don't, I'll go anywhere else besides the Y," one man said.
Property owner Robert Wheatley told the Weekly Wednesday that he, too, was shocked by the YMCA's decision.
"We kind of thought they would stay," he said. "We've had this great relationship. We both realize there would have to be a major renovation done to the facility just to keep up with what's needed. So it's up to them to decide how to move forward."
He said he's already been contacted by people interested in the space, both "people related to gym uses" and others. He said he has heard rumblings about members interested in renting or somehow keeping the space as a gym under a different umbrella, but he doesn't "know of any offer or indication that anyone is seriously considering asking us to sign a lease to stay there."
He said an option like that would have to be "weighed against everything else" and that regardless of who takes over the space, a remodel is necessary.
"The space is old. They've been there for 35 years," he said.
Jordan said that the YMCA would "be happy to help in any capacity if members wanted to try to create a community center.
"We also know, like I said, that the facility is going to need some major rework if its going to remain. ... I wish we could stay, but unfortunately, it's not what were going be able to do."