10 Years of Change: Giving the downtown Y its due

I'm downtown on a recent sunny day, walking along Broadway, when the Boll Family YMCA stops me in my tracks. I don't know what it is about this moment in particular, but for the first time it seems that the nearly 10-year-old building is revealing itself to me. I stand there for a while, reflecting on its distinctive, volumetric presence (it takes up nearly a whole block), its play of transparency and materiality, its friendly relationship with the street and with its nearest neighbor, the Broadway People Mover station, and I think, "Wow. What a building."
Later, I reflect on the fact that we don't have many buildings like it in Detroit: handsome new mid-sized construction that embodies both a distinctly urban sensibility and a compelling clarity of expression. It's the kind of thing we could stand to see more of as the downtown revitalization marches on. In fact, it's the kind of thing that helped catalyze that revitalization in the first place. Bold and forward-looking when it opened in December 2005, the Boll Family YMCA continues to lead by example as the central business district burgeons around it. And with both Model D and the downtown Y celebrating 10th anniversaries this year, we thought it was the perfect time to take a closer look at this underappreciated but significant piece of contemporary downtown architecture.

An early player
The 99,000-square-foot Boll facility, built under the leadership of then-YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit president and CEO Reid Thebault at a cost of $30 million, is a striking demonstration of the Detroit YMCA's ongoing commitment to the city, but it's far from the first. The venerable institution built its original downtown headquarters in 1883, and another nearly thirty years later. That second home, a nine-story brick pile erected in 1909, once stood at Witherell and Adams, or, as YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit's current president and CEO Scott Landry puts it, "right about where center field of Comerica Park is now."
In the late 1990s, when Landry was the metro Detroit Y's vice president for strategic development, he was approached by the Detroit/Wayne County Stadium Authority about acquiring the downtown Y. The plan was to demolish it in order to make way for the new baseball stadium. "We were told, 'Like it or not, you gotta go,'" Landry says. "So we sold the building, but we told everybody we'd be back."
The demolition of the historic facility, a mostly residential building originally designed to house industrial workers, was certainly a significant loss to its remaining residents and members, as well as to local preservationists, but for the Y, it represented the chance to start over. Here was an opportunity not only to build a new regional flagship that would help redefine the YMCA for the 21st century, but also to take an active role in the nascent downtown revitalization.
"We believe that the YMCA is a catalyst," Landry tells me. "And we believed that if we came back and re-opened downtown, more development would follow. Remember, when we were having these conversations, downtown was a different place. GM, Compuware, Dan Gilbert -- none of them were here yet. People thought we were nuts! But somebody's gotta have faith."
An architecture of transparency   
Immediately after the historic building's demolition, the YMCA began working with the city to secure a location for the new building. Upon selecting a city-owned site on Broadway then in use as a parking lot, it turned to another historic Detroit institution, the 150-year-old architecture firm SmithGroup (now SmithGroupJJR) to help realize its vision. "We told the architects, 'We don't want to look back,'" Landry says. "With so little having been built downtown in the last 50 years, we felt that we needed to look forward."
Kevin Shultis, lead architect for the project, tells me that the overriding design theme of the new building is transparency. "It was to be a visible building," he says, "both in terms of looking in and looking out, but also from within. We tried very hard to make sure that from any one place in the building, you'd have vistas to two or three other places."

Internally, that feeling of transparency is achieved through an open, multi-level design that allows runners on the elevated track to see basketball players on the court below, for instance, and weightlifters to see the 40 foot climbing wall in use. The idea is inspiration, motivation -- that quality of engagement and encouragement that makes the Y the Y. Kris Stimac, the executive director of the Boll Family Y, puts it this way: "You can come here and work out, yes, but you can also watch someone overcome some fears. You can watch someone succeed."
Extensive glazing throughout the building, meanwhile, transposes inside and outside to powerful, dramatic effect. From within, the ever-present window walls offer stunning views of the surrounding street life, richly crafted historic architecture, and glossy new developments, like the Z Lot, that echo the Y's crisp lines. From outside, the same windows engage passers-by, inviting their attention and interest and enlivening the street.
A building for the community
Broadly speaking, the decision to outfit a new, mid-sized urban building in glass is hardly a noteworthy one. But context matters, and in downtown Detroit in 2005, it really meant something. The Boll Family Y says "Yes" to the city. It opens its long arms to the urban fabric, and after decades of abandonment and near-fortification, this was not only an optimistic gesture, but a transformational one. It was also, in the words of urbanist and preservationist Francis Grunow, who mourned the demolition of the 1909 facility, a gesture of "healing." Citing the beauty of the historic building, whose pool was outfitted with Pewabic tile, he notes, "Even if we made the almost malicious mistake of destroying something that showed such a peak of artistry, a truly urban building is a significant step forward. The Y was willing to take a chance and lead the way."

10 years on, the Boll Family YMCA is a firmly established part of downtown life. Amid the district's new bustle, its membership continues to grow and its extensive programming to enrich the lives of a remarkably diverse population. Within its walls, infants and toddlers are cared for, city kids go to camp and learn how to swim, plays are staged, and art is displayed. Families pick up produce, young professionals work out, and retirees challenge themselves to scale the looming rock wall.
When I sit outside and observe the comings and goings on a recent Saturday morning, the revolving door just keeps turning, reminding me of the immortal words of the late, great architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable: "It is a building meant to serve and expand the life of a community, and no better definition of architecture exists than that."

This story is a part of "10 Years of Change," a series celebrating Model D's decade of publishing in Detroit. Read other stories in the series here. Support for "10 Years of Change" is provided by the Hudson Webber Foundation.
Matthew Piper writes about art, culture, and sustainability in Detroit. All photos by the author.
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Matthew Piper is a writer and photographer covering art, architecture, and sustainable development in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @matthewsaurus and on Instagram @matthewjpiper. Find more of his work at matthewjpiper.com.