Board hears plan for YMCA facility, pool at Torrey Hills Community Park

A vacant lot at Torrey Hills Community Park is the proposed site for a recreation center or YMCA.
(Karen Billing)

Talks of a YMCA in Torrey Hills have reignited, eight years after the organization had to pull out of plans for a facility in the community.

At its March 17 meeting, the Torrey Hills Community Planning Board heard about the new potential for a YMCA on four acres that have been long vacant at Torrey Hills Community Park.

Bernie Porter, the senior vice president of human resources and general counsel for the YMCA of San Diego County, said the park space would be a wonderful place for a YMCA.

“We are very interested in Torrey Hills and this area of the city. It is underserved by what we do,” said Porter, ticking off all the things the Y does, such as all things family, community, fitness and nutrition. “The YMCA wants to be a ‘third place.’ You have a place you live, the place you work and the third place, where you hang out. We want to be a good, safe place to be.”

Porter has been with the YMCA since 1998 and recalls when plans for a Torrey Hills center started in 2002. Porter’s predecessor as general counsel and the YMCA’s former president negotiated a lease of the land at the park and began the process of gathering funds to build.

The YMCA had $2 million in developer fees, a $1 million gift from a private donor and were well on their way to hit $4 million when the city told them that the developer fees had not materialized as they thought. As there was no city money, the $1 million donor then pulled out.

“Overnight, we lost three of the four million we had raised and the wind was taken out of our sails,” Porter said.

At the time, in 2007, Porter thought the YMCA should as a corporation raise the money and build the facility. But the then-president said things weren’t done that way, and the project was over.

The president retired in 2010 and Porter said new President Baron Herdelin-Doherty has a different point of view and wants to see more YMCAs in more places and to get more people living an active lifestyle.

“Our vision is all about family time. We want the YMCA to be a place where families can come together,” Porter said. “We have an aggressive plan to more than double our memberships, and we’re looking to facilities to help meet that goal.”

Porter said the YMCA recently built a 53,000-acre facility on three acres in City Heights — the Copley-Price Family YMCA, which features an indoor and an outdoor pool.

“I don’t think we want to do all of that on Torrey Hills, but we can do a lot on four acres,” Porter said.

He said a possible plan for Torrey Hills would be a 35,000- to 45,000-square-foot building with a gym and pool, soccer arenas and a parking lot. He said the pricing for that kind of building would be about $10 million.

The process the YMCA typically follows is first identifying a property, working out the legal entitlements (in this case, a long-term lease with the city) and conduct marketing to 600 to 800 residents in the area to gather input on what programs and services they would like to see and gauge the membership interest.

The YMCA is a membership model, so it charges a fee to join. Fundraising efforts provide financial assistance for people who cannot afford the membership. “Nobody is ever turned away,” Porter said,

Porter said they would fundraise for the money to build the facility and “flirt” with different ways to finance it. He said it would probably take about five years to raise the money.

“We try to find ways to speed up that process and get things built faster,” he said.

Recently, the Torrey Hills board has been approached by the city about committing funds to plan a recreation center on that four-acre site.

The city’s planning department has identified funding sources that it would like to use for the project, including $1 million from a past developer contribution earmarked for a Torrey Hills recreation center, $1.1 million from the Torrey Reserve Gateway Development Funds and $454,000 from a Torrey Hills Development Agreement fund.

The Torrey Reserve Gateway funds can be used only for park projects within Torrey Hills. The developer agreement fund has fewer restrictions. It can be used for any public facility, but must be within Torrey Hills.

The city’s proposed recreation center is a “modest” 2,000-square-foot center that could provide office space, a large multipurpose room, a small multipurpose room, restroom and storage. The anticipated project cost is about $4.1 million. The combined $2.5 million available will cover the general development plan, and construction documents and grants or other funding sources would help complete the project.

Chairwoman Kathryn Burton said city staff is encouraging the board to move quickly to commit the $2 million to a community improvement fund to kick off the process, but the board was hesitant to grant the funds and started a park subcommittee to look into the issue further.

The park subcommittee chairman, Peter Gillchrist, said the group has met twice, with the goal of determining the best use for the park “based on the community’s needs and desires in a fiscally responsible and timely manner.”

The subcommittee would like to set up a website and Facebook page to create a dialogue with the community about what they would like to see in the park.

Board member Mark Lee was very enthusiastic about the YMCA’s presentation.

“If they have the ability to design and build the site there, I don’t know how the community would lose,” Lee said. “I’d say, let them run with that.”

Porter said the next step in getting the process going would be to work with the city’s real estate asset department.

“I think it’s a great opportunity and I’m excited about investigating it,” said Gillchrist of the YMCA’s plan. “We want to see what the community as a whole wants to pursue, but I think it’s got great potential.”

Porter was in agreement. He said they never want to come into a community and say “Here’s your Y”— they always seek to build a facility that will meet residents’ needs now and into the future.