SEFC's future uncertain in redevelopment plan
The Friends of the South End Fitness Center (SEFC) hosted an Open House on Saturday, April 27 with tours of the facility and a talk by former world-champion triathlete Karen Smyers to gather support for their effort to retain the affordable exercise facility as part of Trinity Financial's redevelopment of the site. Located on the fourth floor at 35 Northampton Street, the SEFC boasts a 25-yard, six-lane pool; basketball court; aerobics studio; cardiovascular and weight-training rooms and reasonable membership rates with discounts for seniors, students and low-income individuals. Trinity's current proposal for the complex at 35 Northampton Street and 860 Harrison Avenue includes luxury housing and a fitness center, but would eliminate the pool and basketball court. The Friends and other advocates of SEFC want an outcome that would preserve the facility and keep it low-cost. Currently, the SEFC charges $360 per year for a regular membership with senior, student and low-income discounts.
State Rep. Byron Rushing and Community Liaison Raynise Salters of Councilor John Connolly's staff were among the 33 people who attended the gathering. Councilor Connolly, who is a candidate for Mayor, said at a meet-and-greet with voters on Sunday night that he was not familiar with all of the details of the SEFC situation, but added, "Fundamentally, we want to make sure there is an affordable exercise option for the neighborhood. We want to work with the neighborhood to ensure an affordable option." The building in which the SEFC is located is included in a later phase of Trinity Financial's three-part development plan, and to date, only the first phase has been approved. The phase that includes SEFC site will require public review and Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) approval, since the fitness center is a BPHC program. BPHC Communications Director Nick Martin said, "The SEFC won't change for the time being because it isn't part of this phase of the development. Even in Trinity's original proposal, they wanted to maintain the fitness center but eliminate the basketball and pool facility." Martin suggested that community members who want the SEFC to remain should "voice feedback and keep an eye on how process is developing."
Dr. Robert Simms, a rheumatologist at Boston Medical Center and chief spokesperson for the Friends group, described the funding scheme of the redevelopment plan. "The luxury housing tower that is the third phase, because it doesn't include affordable housing units, is funded through private equity capital. Six to eight weeks ago, Trinity met with us, and they don't have it," Simms said. "But it's prime real estate, and with the market rebounding, they shouldn't have any trouble getting the $80 million they need. To replace the pool and gym, they are saying it would cost another $5 million, which sounds high." He continued, "We argue, why not just charge more for the luxury housing? Most people who have luxury apartments want a facility where they can exercise. What they are planning on replacing [SEFC] with is a very small facility like a hotel health club without a pool and a gym."
Smyers, who was an All American swimmer at Princeton University and continued to swim competitively in Boston, trained at SEFC for about ten years. "It was a great resource. It was a little bit of a drive to get here because I didn't live nearby, I lived in Medford. It was well worth it, though. There was a great group of people and a good coach," Smyers recalled. Bill Carlyle, an 18 year resident of the complex, has been a member of SEFC for ten years. "That pool is one of the best pools I've ever seen. I don't know where I would swim," he commented. Dorothy Keeney, a member of the SEFC and of the Friends group, recalled, "About three years ago, I fractured my arm on one of these historic South End Streets when I stumbled on the sidewalk. The doctor said in order to get my full range of motion back, swimming would help. The swimming really helped my arm." Keeney also reaps social benefits to her membership. "I enjoy coming here. The people here are really nice, the facility is clean and the hours are good."
Both Rushing and SEFC Manager Bill McLaughlin cited the center's low visibility due to lack of signage. In a telephone interview, McLaughlin explained that his budget does not include money for advertising or signs, and when he requested signs some years ago, he received no response. "People who have worked here for years walk by every day and they don't even know we're here," McLaughlin said. Rushing is concerned that the effort to preserve the SEFC may be compromised by a lack of neighborhood awareness. To illustrate, Rushing said that en route to the Open House, he stopped to talk with some Boston Shines park clean-up volunteers in Chester Square. When they asked him where he was going, Rushing told them about the Open House. Rushing was dismayed to learn that they had never heard of the SEFC. Rushing explained, "This Open House came out of a suggestion I had made. I told them they needed more publicity. I've been very interested in the development of the two towers that are already there. Constituents have called me about this from time to time." Rushing also noted the center's lack of signage. "There's no way to know how to get there. If the BPHC doesn't put up signs, let the Friends Group put up signs."
Rushing emphasized the SEFC's importance to the well-being of local residents. "[The Friends group] makes a good point: you just don't have enough public health facilities of this size and caliber in the city. I don't understand why anyone would want to lose a resource like that. I don't know what the best plan is for its future, whether it is rehabbing it or building a new one, but that's the kind of question you can't answer until you decide to save it. The plan that Trinity has produced assumes that it is okay to take out the fitness center. Is there a plan for doing a tower with a fitness center that we can compare?" Rushing said. He hopes that the Friends group will continue to reach out to neighbors to help save the fitness center. "I'm just trying to get them to remember that they were organizers," he said. "I think everybody should be a community organizer."