It’s on the exclusive, elite list of the City of Pittsburgh’s “historic designations.”
It’s a Hill District landmark, an African American institution.
It’s the Centre Avenue YMCA building, a storied structure built in 1922 that, 94 years later, is still standing.
Known as the first YMCA in the city for African American men, it became so much more—it was the centerpiece of sports and recreation for African Americans here, even the likes of boxing great Joe Louis would train in a gym in the basement. Jackie Robinson roomed at this YMCA when he would play baseball in Pittsburgh. Dizzy Gillespie, the famed trumpeter, did the same.
To this day, African American men rent rooms at the Centre Avenue Y—and in the not too distant future, those rooms—and the entire building—will undergo a complete renovation.
YMCA officials held a community meeting at the Grayson Center in the Hill District, Oct. 25, outlining plans to partner with ACTION-Housing in a $7 million renovation plan. The two entities will create a nonprofit, Centre Avenue Housing Inc., which will own and operate the building.
“We figured that partnering with ACTION-Housing, which does housing and provides support to individuals who are in housing, would be a best fit for the men that live in the facility, for the community and for the YMCA,” said YMCA regional executive director Aaron Gibson in an interview with the New Pittsburgh Courier, Oct. 25.
Gibson said it was important to provide the public with “transparency” in the Y’s plans for the historic site, “because our communities are always being taken away by outside organizations or entities that may not have (the community’s) best interest.” But most important, the men that live there should have a clear understanding of what’s happening. “At the bottom line, that’s what’s important to me,” Gibson said, “for the men who live there to provide them with a better quality of living.”
The renovations are scheduled to begin in early 2019, and last for 10 months. Upgrades will be made to the sleeping rooms (74 available at completion), the kitchen, bathrooms, offices, and lounge area.
Gibson told the Courier he’s received nothing but “positive feedback” since the renovation announcement. “They know the men that reside here are not doing anything wrong—what they want is a helping hand, so being able to provide those guys a hand up is more important than anything,” Gibson said.
Funding for the project comes from, among others, federal historic tax credits, Bridgeway Capital, the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, and McAuley Ministries.
“Affordable housing is a strategic priority for McAuley Ministries,” said McAuley Minstries executive director Michele Rone Cooper. “The McAuley Ministries’ Board considered that the project will revitalize an historic asset, maintain affordable housing in the Hill District (a geographic priority of McAuley Ministries), and help support continued development in the Centre Avenue corridor.”
Linda Metropulos, vice president, real estate development for ACTION-Housing, told the Courier that “helping people live with dignity” speaks “to the heart of why we take on these projects.”
In recent years, ACTION-Housing partnered with the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh on preserving two historic YMCA locations—McKeesport, and Wood Street, Downtown. With the Centre Avenue having the same historic status, it was a natural fit for ACTION-Housing to preserve that building, as well.
“We’re very dedicated to preserving the single room occupancy units in all those buildings,” Metropulos said.
Metropulos told the Courier the outside of the historic Centre Avenue YMCA will be “refreshed,” but will keep its iconic look and feel. On the inside, “everything will be redone,” she said.
Renters will still be able to live on-site while the renovations are being made. “These are people who, in some ways, have not been well-served by the (region),” Metropulos told the Courier, Nov. 8. “People who we feel should be provided with really excellent housing and supportive services to help them as they build futures for themselves.”
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