The Arlington City Council, weighing $236 million worth of high-priority projects to present to voters this fall in a bond election, is deciding how much to invest in the aging Hugh Smith Recreation Center and East Branch Library.
One option, recommended by the Citizens Bond Committee, is to spend $25 million to build a 67,000-square-foot facility in east Arlington that would house both recreation center and library services. It would be the first of its kind in the city.
Another option, proposed this week by Councilman Charlie Parker, is to spend $10.6 million to renovate the 50-year-old recreation center and do nothing to the East Branch Library for now.
Parker said he would prefer to spend $25 million to build a recreation center designed for seniors in west Arlington, where most of the city’s senior population lives, according to census data.
“Looking at the dynamics of our city, we can see the Hugh Smith center does not adequately service our seniors,” Parker said.
The council, which is expected to continue discussions after its July break, has until Aug. 18 to call for the November bond election. If passed, the package would not require an increase in the property tax rate.
The Hugh Smith Recreation Center, built as a YMCA in 1963, needs costly repairs, is not energy-efficient and has poorly laid out activity space, city officials have said. The center at 1815 New York Ave. houses the city’s only indoor public pool and one of two senior centers.
Besides foundation problems and other maintenance issues, the two-story, 25,000-square-foot building doesn’t have an elevator to provide access for people with disabilities to upstairs fitness and meeting rooms. According to a $120,000 consultant study, bringing the center up to code would cost about $10.6 million.
The consultant also provided three options, ranging from $19 million to $30 million, for building a larger recreation center with space for library services.
Those proposals were designed to address space concerns at the nearby East Branch Library, the city’s oldest and busiest branch. At 10,000 square feet, the branch has become too small to meet the public’s demands, Libraries Director Cary Siegfried said.
“We really have the need for more meeting room space and classroom space. Sharing that space with the recreation center made a whole lot of sense,” Siegfried told the council.
The Citizens Bond Committee recommended the $25 million option, a 67,000-square-foot center that would feature an indoor lap pool and about 13,500 square feet for the library.
“This proposal started a couple years ago under the theory that you consolidate your library and your rec centers into one place [because] we all only have so much time. On Monday night, I want to go to the library and do whatever research or reading I do. Then on Tuesday night, I go to the same place, but instead I will go to the lap pool and swim,” City Manager Trey Yelverton said.
“It’s more of a community center of activity and you just go left or right depending on what you are looking for.”
The combined center would offer the same types of fitness, recreation and senior services available at Hugh Smith now, Parks Director Lemuel Randolph told the council.
Some council members were concerned that only 600 square feet was dedicated to seniors at the combined library/recreation center.
But Bill Gilmore, an assistant parks and recreation director, said the entire facility would be available to residents of all ages.
“This building is really designed, as all our multipurpose facilities are, to provide a space for people to go if they want to play board games or have some type of function or social activity,” Gilmore said. “We designed this particular building to accommodate a broader range of activities for senior adults. If they want to go swimming, it’s here. The library is here. If they want to go work out, that fitness facility is there.”
Between 50 and 75 residents a day use the senior center next door to the Hugh Smith Recreation Center, Gilmore said. Parker said he believes more seniors would use such an amenity if it were closer to where they live — in central and west Arlington.
If the project is selected by the council and approved by voters, the city is looking at two possible locations. One option is to build at Bob Cooke Park, which would not cost Arlington anything for land acquisition.
The council also learned this week that the city can buy 5.5 acres at Kimberly Drive and New York Avenue for about $1.1 million.
Senior center alternative
After a recent visit to Grand Prairie’s senior center, The Summit, Parker is pushing for Arlington to offer a similar amenity to its older residents.
Grand Prairie built the 60,000-square-foot center in 2010 for $23 million, officials said.
Parker suggested taking the $25 million proposed for the combined recreation center/library in east Arlington and using it to build a senior recreation facility at either the Dottie Lynn Recreation Center or Randol Mill Park. The city has not identified whether those options are possible.
Parker also suggested removing three proposed items from the bond list to free up money for the Hugh Smith Recreation Center renovations. Those proposals were $1 million for River Legacy Parks improvements, $5.1 million to rebuild a section of Pleasant Ridge Road and $3.6 million to switch 11,000 street lights along major roadways to LED, a project designed to generate $400,000 in energy savings a year for the city.
The council is expected to continue discussions about the senior center at its next meeting.
“We’ve been talking about it for the past 15 years. We’ve always put it off,” Councilwoman Kathryn Wilemon said. “I’m not ready to take it off the table.”
Councilwoman Sheri Capehart said she doesn’t have a strong opinion on whether Arlington needs a separate senior center or whether a multipurpose recreation center would meet seniors’ needs.
“I would like for us to study that more in depth than we have to this point and maybe go out in the community and survey some of the seniors,” Capehart said.
“I’ve heard some of the seniors really don’t want to be around the younger people. It’s too noisy for their activities. Then I’ve heard just the opposite, that they want to be around the younger people because it’s more invigorating.”