Resurrected Westside JCC gets a major facelift

The Westside Jewish Community Center (JCC) has announced plans for an Oct. 29 groundbreaking on its Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Aquatic Center, a $4 million renovation of the center’s pools and related areas. Four-time Olympic gold medalist Lenny Krayzelburg, who operates a swim school at the facility, will join community leaders, government officials and representatives of Lehrer Architects, the project’s designers, at the 3:30 p.m. event.

The aquatic renovation, scheduled to be completed by May 1, 2009, will honor the midcentury facility’s original design, which Los Angeles architect Michael Lehrer calls a “quintessential optimistic Southern California building that basks in sunshine and fresh air.”

The announcement is particularly welcome news to patrons and supporters of the JCC, who have been concerned about the center’s viability since a financial crisis threatened Los Angeles’ JCC system seven years ago. In recent years, the facility’s operators have implemented a new business model, which helped revive programs, increase membership and raise $8 million toward its larger goal — a $20 million master plan to extensively upgrade the complex.

A crisis among many of the local JCCs came to light in 2001, when a $2 million budget shortfall led the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA) — the local JCCs’ parent organization — to consider closing several of its sites, including the Westside facility.

After closing the Conejo Valley JCC and Bay Cities JCC, JCCGLA initially kept the remaining centers open but drastically slashed operating budgets. Centers were forced to cut services and programs, lay off staff and, in the case of Westside JCC, shutter part of its facility.

Regrouping at the Westside JCC began within a year, according to Michael Kaminsky, president of its board. By September 2002, nursery school enrollment was increasing and some senior programs were reinstated. The center also instituted new fundraising avenues, such as its Celebrity Staged Play Reading series.

“The key for us in rebuilding the center was, and is, to put on programs of excellence,” Kaminsky said. “But we had to do so in a financially responsible way…. We couldn’t expand programming unless we were assured that it would pay for itself and generate additional revenue for the center,” he added.

So Westside JCC began partnering with outside organizations to bring in “high- quality, successful programs that fit with our mission,” Kaminsky said.

First, Krayzelburg — who swam at the center after emigrating from Ukraine with his family as a teen — opened his swim school there in 2005. He contributed $115,000 of the $250,000 needed to refurbish and reopen the pool. And while he operates the Lenny Krayzelburg Swim School — hiring staff, handling admissions, paying operating costs — he pays Westside JCC a fixed percentage of the school’s gross revenue.

“The program was so successful, programmatically and financially, that we decided to use it as a basis for other programs,” Kaminsky said.

Westside JCC has entered into similar partnerships with the Los Angeles School of Gymnastics, Segev and Sara’s Super Duper Arts Camp and the Gilbert Table Tennis Center.

The center has operated “quasi-independently” since 2003, became an independent nonprofit in 2005 and has run in the black every quarter since summer 2003, Kaminsky said. Funding from The Federation currently comprises about 9 percent of the center’s annual budget. In addition, an annual fundraising campaign regularly seeks grants from individuals and foundations for ongoing programs and this year is expected to raise approximately $250,000. On Sept. 18, the Jewish Community Centers Development Corporation (successor to JCCGLA) pledged $1 million to the capital campaign, bringing the total earmarked for the aquatic center to $3.3 million.

Facility usage has also risen from 7,700 monthly visits in 2005 to more than 12,000 in the first half of 2008. As many as 1,200 children take swim lessons each week, and another 200 people of all ages participate in lap swim, family swim or aqua-fit programs. While the increased traffic is exactly what the center’s operators hoped for, it has taken a toll on the aging facility.

Architect Lehrer said he believes “the building’s bones from the original design are fantastic,” so his goal has been to revive “the building’s original intention.”

His plan will restore original features that have been altered over the years (opening up patios that became offices, for example) and amplify the spacious, light-filled original architecture.

In the aquatic center, Lehrer’s design will open three of the four major walls. “Along the south wall, there will be 20-foot-high garage doors, which most days will be open to the out-of-doors; it will be more like an indoor-outdoor pool,” Lehrer said. The cross-ventilation and natural air, along with a natural salt purification and filtration system that uses less chlorine and fewer chemicals, will also make the facility greener, he added.

Kaminsky is optimistic that the center’s long-range goals can be met. The second of three planned phases will upgrade and renovate the main Olympic Boulevard building, and is estimated to cost between $8 million and $10 million.

“Basically, we’ve raised enough for phase one without borrowing any money … and we’re looking at coming out of phase one with over $4 million for the remaining work,” he said.

For Lehrer, the main challenge has been “to take limited resources and to do something of consequence, something catalytic and transformative” for an iconic piece of L.A. Jewish history.

“Westside JCC is central to the Jewish community — it’s emblematic of the community’s re-engagement in the heart of the city … in an area that is deliciously diverse, a real city,” he said.

And, Lehrer added, after more than 50 years of being “nearly loved to death,” the renovation will finally “allow the facility to sing again, in its fullest glory, and to make its contribution back to the city at large.”