Groups wonder if it will be fun to be near the YMCA

By Julie Shapiro

Bob Townley is of three minds when he thinks about the new Battery Park City community center, which is slated to open at the end of 2010.

Townley, executive director of Manhattan Youth, opened his own community center last year, just a few blocks from where the B.P.C. center will soon rise. The B.P.C. center will replicate many of the programs Townley is running — including a summer camp, after-school activities and an all-ages swimming program — so Townley is understandably a bit nervous.

“We hope for mercy,” Townley said, laughing. Then he added, “I don’t go down that easy. I would worry about them.”

That’s one of Townley’s three opinions: concerned, but still hoping to collaborate with the new community center. He can’t get started on that just yet, because the Battery Park City Authority is still deciding between the YMCA and Asphalt Green to operate the space, on N. End Ave. between Warren and Murray Sts.

Townley’s other two opinions conflict: As a Lower Manhattan resident, he wants as many new programs for the community as possible, but as a taxpayer, he wants to make sure the government doesn’t sink too much money into the project.

With money in mind, Townley thinks the YMCA is the better choice to operate the center, since the Y will turn a profit more quickly than Asphalt Green, Townley said, citing last week’s Downtown Express article about the proposals. Asphalt Green will lose more than $3 million in its first few years while the Y will lose just under $2 million, according to the groups’ confidential bids obtained by the paper.

Townley is reluctant to see any public dollars spent on the new community center during a recession, but the Battery Park City Authority, a state-controlled public authority, plans to spend $27 million building out the space and then will allow an operator to run it rent-free. Townley thinks the neighborhood has greater need for a school or a hospital instead.

Townley isn’t the only one anticipating the opening of the 50,000-square-foot center. Several local groups said in interviews this week that they hope to work with the center and share some of its space, but a few also had concerns about a newcomer pushing out established programs.

“It’s important not to set up competition for places working through difficult times,” said Bonnie Fernandez, co-director of the New American Youth Ballet in Battery Park City. “Downtown we need more programs, as long as they don’t duplicate what we have.”

What Fernandez wants to see from the new community center is meeting space, “the places people can go to have the functions that make a neighborhood.” She envisions Boy Scouts sharing the center with a 4-H club after school, with parents volunteering to lead inexpensive sewing and cooking classes.

Elizabeth Flores, Fernandez’s daughter and co-director of the ballet school, hopes the community center will have room for some of their ballet classes as well. The school, which offers lessons for all ages in exchange for donations, is rapidly outgrowing its space at 98 Battery Pl., Flores said.

“You can only do so much in one studio,” Flores said. “I’d like to expand more.”

The YMCA has already started speaking to local groups about using the center, including the Church Street School for Music and Art.

“We are very interested in being part of what’s going on there,” said Lisa Ecklund-Flores, Church Street’s founder and director.

Church Street runs classes for seniors at the Hallmark in Battery Park City and hopes to build an all-ages program in the new community center, which includes a 164-seat theater. Ecklund-Flores estimates that 25 percent of the school’s 750 students come from Battery Park City.

Ecklund-Flores thinks the Y is the better choice to operate the community center, since the Y is reaching out to local groups. Asphalt Green has not contacted the Church Street School.

Asphalt Green, the YMCA and the Battery Park City Authority all declined to comment.

Mark Costello, president of Downtown Little League, which uses the ballfields adjacent to the new center, said he does not see it as competition, as long as his leagues can continue using the ballfields.

“It is not about hurting or helping us,” Costello said. “It’s about helping kids.”

No matter what the new center offers, Costello thinks parents will continue to patronize his volunteer-run leagues. Rather than duplicating existing programs, the new center should focus on what is lacking Downtown: teen activities and classes for niche interests, Costello said.

“The most important thing to me is that [the programs are] suited to our community, that they’re not cookie-cutter,” Costello said.

Tobi Bergman, president of the Pier Park and Playground Association on Pier 40, also isn’t worried that the new community center will steal his business.

“The more the merrier,” Bergman said. “I believe in competition. Competition makes everybody better.”

Bergman, who runs a baseball summer camp and after-school program, said the biggest obstacle to running athletics programs Downtown is lack of space.

“There’s just not enough gyms,” Bergman said. “If we had a gym, we immediately could fill it.”

While the new community center will divert some people from existing programs, Bergman predicted that residents from farther afield would come Downtown to fill in the gaps. He is uncertain how the recession could affect his program.

Staff at Chelsea Piers, a health club and summer camp 2 miles north of the new B.P.C. center, had not heard about it. Erica Schietinger, a spokesperson for Chelsea Piers, declined to comment on the center, but she said the recession shouldn’t be a problem.

“In a recession, family recreation tends to do better than most things,” Schietinger said. “People are looking to do things as a family that’s local, as opposed to traveling to the Bahamas.”

Schietinger, who has three children, added that parents would give up other luxuries before they gave up programs for their children.

Ecklund-Flores, director of the Church Street School, agreed, and said enrollment this spring has held steady, despite the downturn. Where the recession hurts is in the fundraising, which has gotten much more difficult, forcing the school to be creative, she said.

Anh Steininger, co-founder of miniMasters, a Tribeca center with classes for young children, is also seeing steady demand for her services and does not think the new community center will infringe on that.

Steininger, whose children are 6 and 8, said Lower Manhattan has a shortage of year-round youth sports leagues, so she was pleased to hear the B.P.C. community center would offer kids a chance to play competitive sports.

“That’s the one thing our friends in the suburbs have that we don’t have,” she said.

While Townley, of Manhattan Youth, looks ahead to the new community center’s opening, he is busy shepherding his center through its first year and facing down a recession that has upped the number of financial aid requests he’s received.

No matter what the B.P.C. center does, Townley wants to maintain his free programs for teens and seniors. He could easily boot those programs in favor of moneymakers like Kaplan test prep classes, but that won’t happen.

“It would change our mission,” Townley said. “And we’re not going to do that, not after being a community activist for 20-plus years.”