Why the status quo is not an option for the Y

Opinion

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We understand that some West Cook Oak Park YMCA members have raised questions about the possibility that the Y may relocate to a different site within our immediate service area. We also know that is a concern of many residents of our other service areas, especially those of Oak Park and River Forest. This option should come as no surprise to any member of the community who has followed a series of very public discussions and hearings over the past several years about the future of the YMCA which has been located in Oak Park for more than a century.

Following is some background to place this matter into perspective:

First, the Y board began evaluating the best alternative options for its long-term future in 1995, two years prior to hiring its current president. While we are pleased with the leadership and performance and have the greatest confidence in our President/CEO, Mr. Scott Gaalaas, and our staff, he is not the one who is driving the agenda to consider a relocation of the Y; nor is relocation the first choice of the board. But we're at a crossroads on this issue because of a series of events and circumstances.

Second, after we were unable to obtain the necessary zoning variances to remodel, expand, and reconfigure the current facilities, we had to give considerable evaluation to and have extensive discussion of all alternatives. At the end of the time allotted for those discussions, the board determined that the status quo was not an option, for several reasons. The board has decided that the Y must:

? Expand its facilities to meet fully the needs of all of its members and residents of the area, including persons who are physically challenged, seniors and families.

? Be fully accessible to physically challenged users as proscribed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The board reached these conclusions based on the following data:

? In recent years, three different community needs assessments were conducted by independent organizations. These studies revealed a high demand for expanded or new Y programs focused on seniors, persons who are physically challenged, childcare and families as well as a need for outdoor recreation such as soccer and softball playing fields.

? In 2004, the board's Finance Committee conducted a long-term viability study, presented to the Oak Park Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) in public session, which indicated that the present building in its current condition is inadequate to meet the long-term future of the Y, particularly as it responds to the needs identified by members of the community.

? Finally, recommendations of the national YMCA indicate that ideally, Y facilities today should include: two swimming pools (a lap pool and a warm-water zero depth ADA-accessible family pool); expanded space for children's programs such as after-school care; a teen/senior center; expanded youth and adult sports programs; outdoor playground and sports fields; family/adult fitness and exercise center; family changing rooms and ample parking.

? As a board we also examined local and national demographic trends and census reports, as well as national and local area Y trends. Our Membership/marketing and Program Committees conducted and examined annual membership surveys and comments from cancellation surveys for the past four years.

? In the spring of 2004 we conducted and examined a survey of non-members from our community to determine what might cause them to give favorable consideration to becoming members of the Y;

? The board's first choice was to remain in Oak Park and to reconfigure the current site on a modified basis to meet some of the new proscriptions. After extensive dialogue and consultation with village elected and appointed officials and staff on this matter, it was determined that the appropriate route was to petition the ZBA to secure permission to enlarge the Y's facilities by expanding the existing structure onto our existing 44-space parking lot at the north end of our property and to provide additional parking for members and guests in a Y-owned 164-car capacity lot located some 600 feet southeast of the building.

The board engaged in a lengthy petition and a series of very extensive public hearings that was thoroughly reported in local media. We requested a zoning variance to permit the expansion and to allow the use of our larger parking lot for members and guests. In May 2004, by a vote of 4 to 1, the ZBA denied the Y's request for a variance.

Consequently, the board considered alternative reconfigurations of the present site, but after much research and discussion, it determined that was not feasible.

In December, 2004, the board reaffirmed that it will continue to explore other options, i.e. partner and or collaborate with other community groups and agencies or identifying a potential new site within Oak Park or somewhere else in our primary service area, which includes Forest Park and River Forest.

In recent months, the Y board has had preliminary discussions with representatives of several organizations, including the Village of Forest Park about the construction of a new YMCA to meet the needs of the entire community. This matter, however, has not been resolved and we continue to keep our options open.

Regarding several other specific issues raised by some residents:

? According to a study conducted a year ago, while 60 to 65 percent of Y members have an Oak Park address, only about 25 percent of them walk or ride bicycles to the Y. One continual complaint continues to be the lack of parking, which we hope will be remedied if we relocate.

? While residences (SRO) were included in most newly built YMCAs through the 1950s, the national YMCA no longer recommends that Y facilities contain an SRO unit. While no formal decision on this aspect of a new West Cook Yhas been made, the board remains committed to the welfare of our current SRO residents, and if a new Y is built and if it should not include an SRO, we will work to assist the current tenants find appropriate housing in the area.

? Because the Y serves 10 communities, the board feels it is imperative that its composition reflect geographic diversity. Board membership have always been open to non-members, and currently, about half of the board members are members of the Y, which has been the typical ratio over the years. Through their service and contributions, all board members demonstrate their commitment and dedication to the Y's mission.

? The Y strives to be a good neighbor and we continue to work to collaborate with our neighbors. We welcome community input so when concerns such as these are raised, we are able to address them to the best of our ability.

Understandably, the reconfiguration or relocation of a YMCA is a protracted process that involves listening and responding to the needs and concerns of many people, organizations and communities.The board is committed to the process of long term planning and to moving forward towards resolution. In the meantime, the Y will continue to serve the needs of people of all 10 communities in its service area with a full schedule of quality recreational, educational and community services at our current location on South Marion Street in Oak Park.

James Lencioni, Board Chair and Rev. Donald B. Register, Immediate Past Board Chair, West Cook YMCA of Oak Park

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