The YMCA of Greater Boston owns more than a dozen properties throughout the city and suburbs, many of them in prime locations.
Yes, it’s an impressive portfolio. But is the Y maximizing its potential? And then there’s what might be missing: Should the Y be looking to expand, to fill in some of the geographic gaps?
These are among the questions that the Y board and its new chief executive, David Shapiro, hope to answer by enlisting real estate firm Leggat McCall Properties to assess the Y’s real estate holdings and figure out how they might be positioned to best support the organization’s mission. The nonprofit’s board voted last month to hire Leggat McCall, and is expecting the initial phase of this study to last three to four months. The review will include 10 buildings that the Y owns in Boston as well as its locations in Needham, Waltham, Woburn, and Reading, and camp properties the Y owns or leases in Canton, Boxford, and New Hampshire.
Shapiro said the driving force is not “monetizing” the real estate — that is, simply looking to rake in cash with the most lucrative redevelopment options.
“It’s only the driving factor in the sense that if we want to make deep new investments in our buildings, it will help us figure out how and where to make deep investments in our existing buildings and in new opportunities,” Shapiro said. “I want all our buildings to be able to offer world-class experiences for everyone who walks in them.”
Along those lines, Y leaders might look at developing part of a Y property if they could plow the proceeds into facility upgrades. They’re open to expanding into new neighborhoods, perhaps through ground-floor space in new developments, and to addressing community needs beyond the organization’s current focus on fitness, child care, youth development, and hunger relief.
“In the city, there’s Mayor [Michelle] Wu who is focused on equity and affordability and sustainability,” said Christine Stone, a senior vice president at Leggat McCall. “Does that mean there are partnerships that they may explore with development partners [to achieve those goals]?”
One possibility — suggested by City Councilor Brian Worrell — would be to add affordable housing at the nonprofit’s property in Dorchester. Shapiro also would like to examine whether it makes sense to build on top of the Wang YMCA in Chinatown, the only Y in or near downtown Boston, assuming that neighbors and the broader community support the concept.
“It will give us some facts and data about what the opportunities are from renovations, investments, and partnerships,” Shapiro said of the Leggat report.
Shapiro joined the Y last fall from MENTOR, a national mentoring nonprofit based in Boston. But the idea for a comprehensive real estate review was discussed long before Shapiro came on board. Y board chairwoman Evelyn Kaupp said board members started thinking about the issue as long ago as 2014, when the Y completed major renovations to its Huntington Avenue branch.
“We started to think in terms of going forward, how do we maintain the buildings we have?” Kaupp said. “Within our four walls, are we doing what needs to be done for our members and the services that we need to provide?”
Then, in 2020, the Y announced it would sell the 147-room Constitution Inn in the Charlestown Navy Yard, with the goal of investing some of the proceeds into expanded Y services in the neighborhood. St. Francis House and the Archdiocese of Boston eventually reached a deal to buy the building for affordable housing, including some units for people transitioning out of homelessness, though the project has slowed amid neighborhood resistance.
Going forward, the Y board decided to take a more holistic approach toward looking at all its remaining properties — the capital projects that might be necessary at each one, and any development partnerships that might be pursued to pull them off.
“It will be interesting to get Leggat’s view of what some of these upgrades might cost us,” Kaupp said. “Given the magnitude of what we have, it’s really our fiduciary responsibility to understand how we maintain that value.”