Copley Family YMCA plans to build a premier facility in City Heights by mid-2014

The Copley Family YMCA in City Heights offers a wide range of programs for people of all ages, everything from adult swimming and weightlifting to summer camp and youth literacy.

As Mid-City grew in population and diversity, the Copley Family YMCA in City Heights had to improvise to meet the community’s changing needs. It converted a stage into a preschool classroom, an office into a computer lab, and a closet into a workroom.

After years of making do with cramped quarters, the Copley Family Y is now forging ahead with plans to open a new facility by mid-2014 on a lot bounded by 43rd Street, El Cajon Boulevard, Fairmount Avenue and Meade Avenue. Former home of the Pearson Ford dealership, the 3.5-acre site sits strategically at the intersection of three Mid-City communities: Talmadge, Kensington and City Heights.

Under the proposed plan, the land will be donated by the Price Family Charitable Fund to the Copley Family YMCA. The Price family, through both its family fund and Price Charities, has long played a pivotal role in the revitalization of City Heights.

The El Cajon Boulevard site will dramatically raise the profile of the Copley Family Y. Its current location at Landis and 40th streetsis hard to find, hidden behind Cherokee Point Elementary School. Built in 1956 on 1.9 acres of land, the Copley Family Y is old and small, said Stanley Vogelsang, chairman of the organization’s board of managers.

“There is a very significant need in this community that is not met by us because we don’t have the space or facilities,” he said.

New Copley Family Y will be bigger and better

The plan for the El Cajon Boulevard site calls for 53,000 square feet of interior space, whereas the current site has 40,000 square feet. The new facility is projected to serve 18,000 people, more than twice as many as the existing facility. But the focus will continue to be in three areas: youth development, healthy living and social responsibility.

The new Copley Family Y will feature several amenities not currently available, including a soccer field, an outdoor pool for lap and competitive swimming (in addition to an indoor pool), a teen center, a specialized room for stationary cycling classes, and a children’s water play area known as a splash pad. The new building will make it possible to expand childcare services and programs that target the childhood obesity epidemic.

The third place for gathering

Before being offered the land, the Copley Family Y was planning on a major remodel of its existing facility. That plan changed after Robert Price, the head of his family’s charitable foundations, stepped in with the unsolicited donation, much to the surprise of Y officials.

Price had heard about the remodeling plan from a friend. He said he likes the idea of having a prominent community building on El Cajon Boulevard that attracts a broad clientele not just from City Heights but also from Kensington and Talmadge.

“The reason why it makes sense is that the services of the Y appeal to everybody,” Price said, adding that there is a proposal to build a Rapid Transit bus stop in front of the new Copley Family Y in the future that will carry passengers between downtown San Diego and San Diego State University.

The Y has long prided itself on being a community gathering place, where people of all backgrounds can come to play, learn and exercise, regardless of their ability to pay.

“There is this concept of a third place. People have home and work – place one and two – and they want to have a third place for gathering,” Vogelsang said. “The YMCA is one of those third places where one can gather for exercise, recreation, childcare, picnics…”

Percy Tolliver, a single father whose two girls are regulars at the Copley Family Y, couldn’t agree more. “Copley is like Wal-Mart, one-stop shopping,” he said. “You get everything you need for your kids right here.”

Fundraising for the project

Steve Totten, vice president of planned giving and major gifts for the YMCA of San Diego County, said the project is expected to cost about $13 million to build. Donors, including the Helen K. and James S. Copley Foundation, have already committed $4.5 million. The Copley Family Y also has applied for a $5 million state grant for the project. A list of who’s who in San Diego, including Malin Burnham, Mel Katz, Phil Blair, Murray Galinson, Bill Geppert, Jack McGrory , Duane Roth and Ted Roth,  is leading the Copley Family Y’s capital campaign. The goal is not just to raise enough money to break ground in early 2013, but also to create an endowment fund to support the facility’s future needs.

Creating long-term financial sustainability is crucial because 90 percent of the Copley Family Y’s current patrons receive financial assistance, according to Y officials. Each year, the organization spends more than $1 million in subsidies. The demographics of its service area also stand out for its extraordinary linguistic and cultural diversity. Dozens of languages from Somali to Vietnamese are spoken in City Heights alone.

“This is the most diverse of our branches because Mid-City is the melting pot of San Diego,” Totten said, noting the project presents an exciting opportunity to create a model inner-city YMCA.

Leticia Leos, the Copley Family Y’s executive director, said the Y has held 18 meetings with Mid-City community groups to get their input. She noted that her facility already attracts some patrons from outside City Heights who live in Talmadge, North Park, Kensington and elsewhere.

“They can’t wait to start using this new Y,” she said.