The Brooks Family YMCA is an exercise in community building

The 79,000-square-foot building, designed by VMDO Architects, is nestled on the backside of a slope at McIntire Park. Photo by Stephen Barling The 79,000-square-foot building, designed by VMDO Architects, is nestled on the backside of a slope at McIntire Park. Photo by Stephen Barling

For the better part of 25 years, Kurt Krueger has harbored a vision.

“I remember learning to swim as a kid at a YMCA in St. Louis,” says Krueger, a UVA School of Law graduate and downtown attorney, and a long-time supporter of the local Y’s satellite youth sports programs. “I knew that a full-service Y facility could be much more than just another gym or pool,” of which there are plenty in town. A modern YMCA recreation center, he felt, could be a focal point for community engagement and a vibrant hub for the health and wellness of people of all backgrounds across the region. He dreamed of helping to open one in Charlottesville.

A week from now, after two decades, two lawsuits and hundreds of hours volunteered by people with the same vision, Krueger’s dream will become a reality.

In 1992, after a storefront YMCA on Park Street dissolved, the national YMCA organization asked a group of interested community members to figure out whether Charlottesville would support a new Y. Convinced that it would, 12 of that group—including Krueger, realtor Stephen McLean and businesswoman Suzanne Brooks—incorporated the Piedmont Family YMCA in 1994. With no physical presence except a small office, the Piedmont Y ran youth sports programs for the city and county on a modest budget, mostly by renting space from schools.

Successful for a time, the Piedmont Y began to face sharply increasing rental costs and capacity constraints. “It was clear we were going to run out of steam,” says Krueger. “We knew we needed to build a facility.” His hope was to partner with the city. “Parks and recreation departments always struggle with how much to centralize. Neighborhood recreation centers can be one way to go, but building eight or 10 of those would be phenomenally expensive. Most communities of our size start looking for a way to do something centrally.”

Piedmont Family YMCA Board Chairman Kurt Krueger envisioned a modern-day Y in Charlottesville that would become a hub for community engagement and health and wellness for people of all backgrounds. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen
Piedmont Family YMCA Board Chairman Kurt Krueger envisioned a modern-day Y in Charlottesville that would become a hub for community engagement and health and wellness for people of all backgrounds. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen

Krueger became chair of the YMCA board in 2000, and he and former Y director Bob Vanderspiegel spread out a big map of Charlottesville. “The very center of the map was McIntire Park, which was a fairly underutilized public space,” says Krueger, and he set to work making the case for a brick-and-mortar Y to be located there. Both the city and the county had done studies that projected the need for another 100,000 square feet of indoor recreation space for the community within 10 years.

“Our reasoning was, if the city built a facility, they’d spend $10 million or more taxpayer dollars on it and then have to operate it as well,” says Krueger. “If, instead, the city helped us secure the land and we raised private donations for the building, and then of course as a Y we don’t turn anyone away, then it’s very close to a public facility at an enormous savings for them.”

Making the case

Over the next five years, Krueger appealed to anyone who might see his logic—the mayor, the city architect, the county executive, the city manager. Though other, more remote sites were available, the board felt that the community as a whole, both city and county, would be better served by a central Y. Slowly, Krueger’s plan gained traction, and in 2006 he and the board brought it before the City Council.

Though some on the council expressed support, the plan’s detractors were not easily persuaded. On the heels of the heated Meadowcreek Parkway debate, some councilors balked at the Y’s placement in the park, arguing against any diminishment of green space, while others questioned its potential benefits to city residents. Bob Fenwick, then a candidate for City Council and a member of the Coalition to Preserve McIntire Park, declared that the proposed lease was illegal and that construction of the Y would destroy the park’s softball fields and end the annual McIntire fireworks display and the Dogwood Carnival. For its part, the Y group pledged minimum disruption while emphasizing planned community partnerships and outreach.

Strength in numbers

The Brooks Family YMCA

Square footage: 79,000

Cost: $19 million

Construction start to finish: 19 months

Number of employees: 90-100 part-time staff, 7 full-time employees

Number of fitness/activity rooms: 3 group exercise studios, 1 functional training area, 1 community room, 1 Play Zone

Number of lap lanes: 10 in rec pool, 3 in family pool

Number of basketball courts: 3

Number of kids/teen areas: 3

Number of parking spaces: 158

After several rounds of meetings and refinements, the city agreed to the plan in a 3-2 vote in late 2007, and donated five acres of land on the far west side of the park in a 40-year lease for $1 per year. Todd Bullard, a long-time YMCA volunteer coach and owner of local design firm VMDO, and his colleague Jim Richardson were among the architects who prepared the original renderings and site studies.

“As a stipulation of the ground lease, the design was a very public process and required input and approval from the city’s Board of Architectural Review, the Planning Commission and the City Council,” says Richardson.

Public comment was invited and integrated into the plans. Four or five tracts in the park were considered, and the Y was eventually sited on a hilly, and thus architecturally challenging, location that preserved all of the existing athletic fields and flat areas of the park. Nestling the building into the backside of a slope meant the building would have a lower profile, scaled better to its surroundings.

The city and county donated $1.25 million and $2 million, respectively, to the project, which was matched by contributions from Piedmont Y board members and followed by the launch of a capital campaign to raise the remaining $8.5 million. The city’s donation was predicated on the Y’s promise to construct a diving well and lap pool to accommodate the Charlottesville High School swim team, and to give CHS priority access to the pool after school hours. Loughridge & Co., bidding against more than a dozen firms, won the construction contract, and the board planned a groundbreaking ceremony in 2010.

And that’s when the next major obstacle rolled into the path.

Law of the land

In May 2010, a group of private gym clubs led by ACAC founder Phil Wendel sued the city and county over their arrangements with the YMCA. The lawsuit claimed the city’s offer of a contract to build a fitness facility in the park was a public procurement, and thus unfairly excluded the private clubs from the bid process. The city countered that the lease and seed funding were a gift, not a procurement, as the city would neither own nor manage the facility. “As a gift to a charitable organization whose purposes were in line with the city’s purposes, the donation was legal,” says Krueger. “The language of the statute was clear.”

The Charlottesville General District Court agreed, dismissing the suits against both the city and county by 2011. The battle continued, however, as the private club owners appealed the decision to the Virginia Supreme Court. Though ultimately dismissed by the Virginia high court in 2013, the lawsuits drained the project of its momentum and created a new set of hurdles. “The legal process took three years to play out,” says Krueger, “and a lot had changed in the interim.”

During the delay, the Y was forced to ask City Council for repeated extensions on the lease agreement’s required start date. “The saddest thing about the lawsuits was that construction prices were going up every year,” says Richardson of VMDO. “That really stung. It meant we’d have to reduce the size of the building, or keep the same space with fewer attributes. Fortunately, Loughridge & Co. graciously agreed to manage costs and honor their original bid as much as they could.”

Regaining the lost energy for the project was a top priority for Krueger and the board, as was finding additional donors to bridge the gap created by the increased costs ($4 million more). Suzanne Brooks, an early and significant donor to the project, credits Krueger’s unwavering perseverance as the key to getting the facility built. “Really and truly, if it hadn’t been for Kurt’s stick-to-itiveness, it wouldn’t have happened,” she says.

The fitness room, which looks out on both the pool and gymnasium, includes cardiovascular equipment such as treadmills, as well as free weights and circuit training equipment. Photo by Stephen Barling
The fitness room, which looks out on both the pool and gymnasium, includes cardiovascular equipment such as treadmills, as well as free weights and circuit training equipment. Photo by Stephen Barling
The facility houses three basketball courts in a double gymnasium with an elevated running track circling around it. Photo by Stephen Barling
The facility houses three basketball courts in a double gymnasium with an elevated running track circling around it. Photo by Stephen Barling

With the retirement of CEO Denny Blank in 2014, the board was faced with the prospect of a long national search for a replacement. Krueger and veteran Y manager Bill Blewitt sat in Krueger’s office and talked about the options. With a long-standing and cohesive board of directors in place, there was no need to bring in an old hand from out of state. On the contrary, says Krueger, “we needed a person whose heart and soul was in it, who was intelligent and could pick up a lot of things all at once, and who could quickly form bonds with people in the community and in the regional Y system.”

“We looked at each other, and we were each thinking the same thing,” says Blewitt. “We already knew the perfect person for the job.”

Jessica Maslaney, a dynamic young Y director with a head for organization and a heart for community recreation, was in the right place at the right time for a big undertaking.

Heart and soul

Maslaney grew up in Arlington and majored in English literature at UVA, “reading novels instead of textbooks,” she admits. In her fourth year she interned with the Piedmont Family Y for 10 hours a week, developing sports and camp programs for kids. Attracted to sports programming for its direct connection to health and fitness, she took the program director’s position that opened up just as she graduated in 2004.

Overseeing 2,400 children in the basketball program, 400 in lacrosse, 300 in flag football and an army of adult volunteers as coaches and coordinators, Maslaney quickly made connections throughout the Charlottesville/Albemarle region. “My philosophy has always been, the more people the better when it comes to recreation, and the Y is about inclusivity,” she says, “so my goal is always to grow the programs.”

In 2010, a group of volunteers in Crozet decided to make Claudius Crozet Park a year-round swim destination, and launched a capital campaign to enclose the park pool during the winter months. The project became a joint venture with the Y, whose job it was to run the operational side of the facility and to add other fitness elements. Maslaney ran the Crozet Park summer camps and became site director in 2012. Along the way, her family fell in love with Crozet and moved there in 2013. 

“My ultimate goal was to be CEO,” says Maslaney. “I did have a trajectory planned, though I didn’t think it would come about for another 15 years.” When Blewitt, serving as interim CEO in 2014, met with each member of the staff, he didn’t have an agenda for the meetings, but Maslaney arrived with detailed analyses and projections for the Crozet Y. “I don’t like to go into any meeting unprepared, so I had all my ducks in a row.”

When Blewitt floated Maslaney’s name for CEO of the new Brooks Family YMCA, as it was to be called, Krueger knew instantly it would work. “The narrow mission of a fitness center is about you—to help you become physically fit, but the mission of [the] Y is all about connections between people with similar goals,” says Krueger. “So Jessica, being a program-oriented person, is perfect for us, because programs are how we get there.”

The optimist

Maslaney had to hit the ground sprinting. “I started on my birthday in January of 2015,” she recalls. “I was 33 years old, and on that very first day I went to City Council with Kurt [Krueger] to ask for another one-year extension on the lease agreement. Their message was, ‘Yes, but do not come back and ask for another.’” Construction had to begin in 2015 or the agreement would be null and void.

Amid critical updates to the construction contract and the board’s efforts to secure the remaining financing, Maslaney and the Y’s construction consultant, Jay Kessler, traveled around the state to the newest Y facilities to look at trends and meet other managers. “The joke is, if you’ve seen one Y, you’ve seen one Y, because they’re all so different,” says Maslaney. But she saw several things she liked, did some research and suggested a few modest but impactful changes to the design. 

Piedmont Family YMCA CEO Jessica Maslaney helped design aspects of the new Brooks Family YMCA, set to open June 30, including a kids’ play space and teen area. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen
Piedmont Family YMCA CEO Jessica Maslaney helped design aspects of the new Brooks Family YMCA, set to open June 30, including a kids’ play space and teen area. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen

Architect Richardson says that Maslaney always focused on how program areas would best support membership. “She suggested that some extra locker room space could be converted to three additional fitness rooms to hold more classes, and so we did that without increasing the square footage of the building.” Careful budget management by Kessler allowed Maslaney to go ahead with construction of a large mezzanine, originally slated to be added in the future, that will overlook the double-height fitness room. “It’s always cheaper and less disruptive to build things while the crews are already out there,” says Richardson.

No stranger to job sites, Maslaney loved tagging along as a kid with her father, Jim, who supervised commercial construction. “I remember going with my dad to his site and climbing in cranes, standing behind drywall studs, getting in the pool before it was finished.” She gets the same thrill now when she dons a hard hat to watch the progress at the Brooks Y site.

Though accustomed to operating independently as director of the Crozet Y, Maslaney recognized that in the CEO position she would benefit from the experience of others. She relied on Blewitt’s advice to pull back a bit from her habitual micro-analysis of the details and concentrate on hiring talented staff to help with the workload. She also took his counsel and began to meet weekly with Krueger, so that her decisions were transparent and her plans in sync with those of the board.

“It was quite a feat to get to groundbreaking, with an almost overwhelming number of details to keep track of,” says Maslaney. “We made a huge countdown, we called it a moving-parts timeline, where we identified everything that needed to be done by category—fundraising, political, banking, construction and facilities, operations, marketing, communications—in long lists, and we’d just check things off as we went.” She refers to herself, half-jokingly, as a “naïve optimist,” and says, “There’s never been a day that I’ve doubted this would come to fruition.”

Maslaney’s immediate family is living the Y life as well. Her husband Chris manages UVA’s North Grounds Recreation Center, where they met when Jessica played club basketball in college, and has served as basketball site supervisor for the Piedmont Y. Their children, now 7 and 4, are true Y kids: She brought her son to work with her for seven months after he was born, and her infant daughter was the first (and for several weeks only) resident at the Y’s new child care program at the Jefferson School City Center. “My son has been holding off on his birthday party this year,” she says, “hoping to be the first kid to celebrate his birthday at the new Y.”

She is most proud of the new building’s kids’ and teen areas, which she helped design. “In the Stay and Play [kids] space, we have a jungle gym and we lined that area with benches because we want parents to come in and interact with their kids and each other,” she says. Elements of the teen center were selected by CHS students in the AVID college preparatory program. “They met with the architect and picked colors, graphic features and furniture, and they designed the invitations and the inspirational word wall,” which contains words such as collaboration, determination, generosity, integrity, caring and original, printed in varying sizes.

Bonding exercise

Krueger couldn’t be more pleased with Maslaney at the helm. “Jessica has two phenomenal character traits: loyalty and honesty,” he says. “She’s got the courage of her own convictions, plus a personality that makes people want to work with her.” The pair are like-minded about the real mission. “The focus is naturally on this beautiful new building, but for us it’s a means to an end,” says Krueger, “and the end is to improve the community by forging relationships between people of all economic classes and races and abilities and experiences and backgrounds.”

Toward that end, the Brooks Y staff linked up with the Center for Nonprofit Excellence in December to hold three half-day meetings designed to connect groups with similar missions in the community. According to Maslaney, the youth development aims of the Y connected with similar goals of the Boys & Girls Club, Big Brothers Big Sisters and City Schoolyard Garden at those meetings.

“What’s been gratifying about the Y is that as they considered how to use all of their new capacity, they wanted to first find out what was going on in the community,” says CNE Executive Director Cristine Nardi. The three packed sessions focused on the Y’s core missions: social responsibility, youth development and healthy living, and how the Brooks Y can fill gaps and extend resources.

The family aquatics center has a 10-lane fitness/competition pool and observation area, as well as a zero-entry recreation pool, a spa and dry sauna. Photo by Stephen Barling
The family aquatics center has a 10-lane fitness/competition pool and observation area, as well as a zero-entry recreation pool, a spa and dry sauna. Photo by Stephen Barling

One suggestion was that the Y could offer its demonstration kitchen to teach healthy cooking for community groups such as elderly populations or for people who have or are at risk for diabetes. Another idea that surfaced in the sessions is that the Y’s central and large presence can serve as a clearinghouse for information dissemination, so Maslaney was excited to install a community information wall where people can learn about all of the resources available in town in one place. In addition, the Y’s large community spaces can be used as a hub to help other nonprofits with training if they don’t have space of their own to hold larger meetings.

Maslaney is also part of an informal “leadership circle,” along with leaders from the Charlottesville Free Clinic, Big Brothers Big Sisters, CASA and Madison House, to share ideas and inspiration. “The opportunity for groups to partner on programs addressing issues such as autism, healthy food or inter-generational interaction is so exciting,” says Mary Davis Hamlin, CNE senior consultant. “The Y will be a community anchor—it will honor health, and all walks of life will use it. That’s remarkable in our segregated world these days.”

Suzanne Brooks, whose family name is on the door, says her devotion to the Y project stems from its fundamentals. “One of the reasons that I’ve stuck with it for so long is because of the principles that the Y teaches—caring, honesty, respect and responsibility,” she says. “Everything they do goes through those. Can you imagine if everybody in the world lived by those four values, what a great place it would be, everywhere?”

Laying the foundation

The first YMCA was launched in London in 1844 as a way to give idle young men something productive and healthful to do with their time, and the organization made its way to the U.S. in 1851. Today there are more than 2,700 Y centers across the country. A few facts about Charlottesville’s YMCA history:

• The University of Virginia was home to one of the first campus-based YMCA organizations, established in 1856. A permanent building for the chapter was completed in 1905, and UVA School of Law alum Woodrow Wilson delivered its dedication address. That building is the present-day Madison Hall, situated directly across University Avenue from UVA’s Rotunda. The large field behind Madison Hall (Madison Bowl) was also owned by the Y and used for track and field events. By 1933, the building had been converted to a Student Union.

• The large brick building on the corner of Second and Market streets in downtown Charlottesville housed a community YMCA from 1909 to 1927. The upper floors were hung for extra spring, the main floor was a basketball court, and there was a pool in the basement. This building now hosts the offices of VMDO, the architectural firm that designed the Brooks Family Y.

• Charlottesville benefactor Paul Goodloe McIntire, who donated land and funding for city schools, libraries and parks, as well as several major buildings at UVA, was a strong advocate of the Y. He was quoted at a Y board meeting in 1923 as saying that “to not support a YMCA would be a disgrace to Charlottesville,” and that “a YMCA was a necessity for a city of this size.” The Brooks Family Y now sits in a corner of the park bearing his name.

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