Volume 20 Issue 11 | July 27 - Aug. 3, 2007

Countdown to Downtown Community Center starts

By Skye H. McFarlane

It may be run by Manhattan Youth, but the new community center in Tribeca will cater to teens, seniors and parents, too — with no membership cards required.

After a four-month delay due to government paperwork processing, construction has finally begun on the interior of the 30,000-square-foot center, which sits within the new Resnick condo development at 200 Chambers St. The building also houses an annex for P.S. 234, which is set to open this fall. The community center should open by early 2008, with March as a rough target.

On Tuesday, Manhattan Youth Director Bob Townley updated Community Board 1 on the center’s progress and future programs.

“Saying you want a community center is like saying you want a car,” Townley said. “It could be a truck; it could be a Mazda. There are many different types of community centers.”

Townley’s “vehicle” of choice will be a program-based model in which patrons will pay, a la carte, for the classes they choose to take. In the case of teens and seniors, Townley hopes to offer up some or all of the center’s resources for free, since seniors live on fixed incomes and teens are largely underserved by the neighborhood’s youth programs, which tend to cater to toddlers and elementary school-aged children.

“As the kids get older, unless you are talking about high-level competitive sports, typically parents stop paying for these types of services,” said Alex Roche, the community center’s director, of the center’s teen enrichment classes, which will be augmented by a 700-square-foot teen lounge.

In order to keep the teen scene costs down, Townley hopes that parents will volunteer their time at the center, doing things like making dinner or supervising the lounge. The trick, of course, will be to keep things orderly without stifling the type of independent energy that will attract teenagers in the first place.

“Your 18-year-olds may not want to come if their parents are there,” warned Paul Hovitz, chairperson of the C.B. 1 Youth Committee, who recalled that the old teen center in Southbridge Towers rarely attracted anyone over the age of 14.

Roche said that Manhattan Youth would work to make the teens feel at home in the new space, giving them some control and bringing back college-age graduates from the neighborhood to speak to their high school-age counterparts. The center, which will generally be open daily from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., also plans to have some hours in the evenings and on weekends when only teens and adults will be allowed in.

Townley pointed to the center’s digital recording studio, top-notch computers and classes like photography and fashion design as additional drawing points for area adolescents.

As for the retired set, Roche said that the center will start by offering swimming and aqua-aerobics classes similar to those the organization used to run in the recently privatized pool facilities at 225 Rector Pl. The center plans to open up its classroom spaces so that existing senior activity programs in the neighborhood will have a place to operate. There will also be a few classes for non-retired adults.

The core of the community center’s operations, however, will be to enhance and expand Manhattan Youth’s activity programs and camps for children in elementary and middle school. As always, Townley said, the choice of programs will be determined by a mix of parental input and trial and error.

“People pitch us so many ideas that Alex [Roche] and I have to be like Hollywood directors and say, ‘This is a good idea’ or ‘No, no, this won’t work,’” Townley joked, recalling a parent who would not rest until Manhattan Youth agreed to offer Dutch language classes.

The organization already offers a potpourri of 90 different programs, ranging from basketball to circus performance to robotics. In a more serious vein, Manhattan Youth has applied to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation for a grant to hire an academic coordinator. The organization hopes to offer expanded tutoring to help local students prepare for the many high-stakes tests that they now face from the third grade all the way up through high school.

Townley’s dream is to use volunteers or corporate sponsors to develop a free, community-based tutoring program — an idea that could spare local parents thousands of dollars each year.

An aide to Councilmember Alan Gerson, David Feiner was enthusiastic about the potential for low- or no-cost test prep in the neighborhood.

“We are seen as a wealthy community, but not everybody here is in that boat,” Feiner said.

In addition to the classrooms, studios and pool, the community center will have a theater, a multimedia library and a culinary center. Although Manhattan Youth has already raised — through a combination of government grants and private donations — the $10 million it needs to build the center, the organization is still working to obtain another $2.8 million to make the center “world class.”

Jim Hopkins, the director of Manhattan Youth’s capital campaign, said that the organization would begin a big push this fall to secure funding for finishing touches, like lockers, theater lights and music stands. But before the doors of the new center are even open, Townley is already looking ahead and planning for Downtown’s ever-growing population of families.

“Within 10 years, we may need more space,” he said. “This space, in my opinion, is already too small for the kids that are coming.”

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