Thumbs Up!

For more than 120 years, the Blue Water YMCA in Port Huron, Mich., has served the community, providing top-notch programs for a wide range of ages. As one of the first YMCAs in the state, Blue Water was founded in 1886, and has been a fixture in the largest city in Michigan’s “thumb” area ever since.

Although sentimentally regarded, the facility was nearly 80 years old, and staff was struggling with building deficiencies, attempting to meet the growing needs of its users. Undersized pools and the old YMCA dormitory-style design did not adequately serve present and future users’ needs. Simply put, the community had outgrown the facility.

As the infrastructure of the aging building continued to decline, the YMCA’s Board of Directors determined that a new structure was a better option than a quick-fix renovation. A new building would provide improved adjacencies and the proper floor space for critical functions, such as those located in pools and gymnasiums. All agreed that a new site would allow for future expansion and accommodate growing parking needs.

The new facility--designed by TMP Architecture in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.--gives the YMCA a state-of-the-art tool to provide even better programming, plenty of space and a stronger commitment to the community. Programs are now housed in a warm and spacious environment on the banks of the St. Clair River. The new facility allows the YMCA to successfully continue its mission to maintain and strengthen a model for healthy choices, the value of community and a sense of place.

A Generous Friend

Along with grants, the Port Huron community financed the new YMCA primarily through pledged donations. In light of a struggling Michigan economy, these donations are testimony to the value this project holds within the community. A local developer, Acheson Ventures LLC, donated the riverfront land after financing an extensive excavation process that included removal of hazardous materials on this former brownfield site. For both parties, the donated site represented a generous and mutually beneficial arrangement that would enhance the value of the river area, create great architectural opportunities, and provide a valuable catalyst for future development.

Jim Acheson, a Port Huron community patriarch, wanted to rejuvenate this stretch of land, and realized that he needed the right building to catalyze the area. For Acheson, the YMCA’s apparent needs for a new facility matched his vision for the site in a picture-perfect way. What would provide a better vehicle for rejuvenation than a dynamic community building like a YMCA?

Mike DeLong, project manager with Acheson, says that his company worked for years to ensure that the YMCA came to this particular site.

“The YMCA is a great tool to show potential office-building tenants and other future business owners,” says DeLong. “This first-class facility is located within reach, and allows business owners to offer their employees the benefits of membership.”

So strong was Acheson’s feeling that the YMCA should make a home on this site that he not only donated the land but provided infrastructure for the new facility, including sewers, water and a number of roads, and generally brought new access to a site that had very little. Acheson also made improvements to nearby buildings and expanded a parking deck to accommodate patrons and staff.

Future development plans for the land surrounding the new YMCA include a mix of residential options, including single-family homes, condominiums and apartments. A variety of retail offerings will support a walkable, urban residential community environment. Plans for a maritime museum, as well as a fountain with wading pool and wintertime ice rink, also are in the works.

A Moving Target

Realization of the project wasn’t as simple as it seems, however. Recalling the early planning process, Dave Larson, Project Designer with TMP Architecture, says, “It was a nomadic site. Possibilities for what to place in a certain location versus another location on this strip of land were endless.”

The enormous options presented a ”moving target” for architects, Larson explains. One concept for the new building would fit well on one portion of the site, but would require a completely different configuration at another location.

“It was a challenge for us to hit this moving target, as we developed multiple options for the YMCA as well as the developer,” says Larson. “In the end, the chosen site was a wonderful fit.”

Ultimately, after several building-footprint studies and a series of discoveries, parties agreed on a 1,776-acre riverfront site that the YMCA now calls home. With a romanticism and mystique that only a waterfront property can offer, the building’s location affords views of an international boundary (the Canadian city of Sarnia, Ontario, is visible across the St. Clair River). Patrons are treated to close-up views of ocean freighters from all over the world as they pass by at close range.

A former train yard and shipping hub and manufacturing facilities were the previous residents on this strip of land. Construction materials were selected for their proven longevity, low maintenance and visual excitement. The exterior design--with its use of large glass panels, brick piers and stone accents--recalls the architectural vocabulary of the industrial structures that occupied the site long ago.

A Transparent, Legible Layout

The transparent design creates an inherently exciting environment for users. People can see through the building and enjoy views of the river. Other activities throughout the building also are visible, which allows parents and a minimal number of staff to easily monitor these activities. As a result, the building is easy to navigate without heavy reliance on signage.

The visual access to other spaces creates a comfortable and safe environment. Patrons can stroll through the concourse and observe various activities without physically entering the spaces. Seating located in the mezzanine over the gymnasium, for example, allows visitors to use the concession area as they watch a class in progress.

Program Highlights

The new family-friendly YMCA offers state-of-the-art facilities and amenities for a wide range of age groups and interests. The facility includes a full-service day-care wing, as well as a suite for drop-in child-care during workouts. Julie Moak, recently retired Executive Director of the facility, is thrilled with the secure nature of the YMCA’s day-care area.

“Our licensed day care is located in a separate wing with no access to the main building except by swipe card or key,” she explains. “This area is off limits to anyone but employees, and is a very secure area for the children. Parents have access by way of the parking garage or their designated entrance -- also by swipe card. Parents feel very safe with the design of that area.”

Accommodations for multi-tiered membership options and access to covered parking are also a plus. The new facility allows the YMCA to provide increased programming opportunities to the community in a safe and comfortable environment. One important example is the natatorium, which accommodates lap swimming in one pool, but also features a water playground for children and parents to enjoy year-round in the leisure pool.

The 65,000-square-foot facility is organized around a central spine with a public entry at each end, while a third entry provides secure, controlled access to the child-care center. Patrons have dramatic views from the upper lobby into the aquatics center, the gymnasium and, of course, the river. In addition to the central spine acting as the facility’s lobby, it separates member functions from non-member functions, and is easily supervised from the control desk area.

Amenities include a six-lane lap pool, a leisure pool with water slides, a lazy river, therapy components and water play features, a two-court gym, a weight fitness area overlooking the natatorium, group exercise rooms, meeting rooms, a concessions area, child-care suite, outdoor playground and locker rooms. The pool, Moak’s favorite building element, is a popular spot for patrons.

“The recreation pool is full of play features, and hundreds of children can use both pools at one time,” she says. “We have had over 200 children and adults in the pool area at one time, and it has been doable! To see the smiles and hear the laughter of our members is worth it all.”

A Community Effort

The tremendous effort to build the facility was a true investment in the Port Huron community, assisting in the transformation of a forgotten piece of land. The new YMCA and the renewal of the area are prime examples of the benefits of community participation, commitment and leadership.

A lengthy planning process that stayed true to the vision has resulted in a real community showplace, says Moak. “Our beautiful new building is very open, and every foot of space is used. The building’s design allows members to work out, and at the same time view their children in the pool, or look through the windows to see freighters and tall ships pass by,” she says.

Michelle McCulloch has been a member of TMP’s marketing team since 2005. Established in 1959, TMP Architecture is a full-service architectural/engineering firm focused in the planning and design of K-12, municipal and college/university projects. The firm has offices in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., Portage, Mich., and Columbus, Ohio. Michelle can be reached at