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The Evolution of a Community Center

The revitalization of the Barrett Community Center is on Belmont’s wish list.

With several major projects in Belmont nearly complete -- the , , Emmett House -- city officials may soon be turning their attention to revamping the .

A product of the post-WWII construction boom, the Barrett Community Center -- Belmont’s unofficial hub of theatre, art, youth sports and recreation -- was originally built as an elementary school to serve the families of returning GIs.

The school’s frontage and surrounding neighborhood was also developed with single family houses in anticipation of soldiers returning from war and starting families.

The 1940s architectural style of Barrett Elementary School is still evident in the “winged” design of the building; the original three wings housed classrooms and were divided by grassy common areas and breezeways. An additional “quad” was added in the 1960s.

As the last of the baby boomers moved on and school enrollment sharply declined, the city of Belmont acquired the site, and in a burst of civic confidence, converted it into Barrett Community Center in 1985.

That conversion paved the way for much-needed recreation space, as well as a revenue-generating opportunity for the city by leasing some of the space to artists, fee-based recreation classes, and an after-school program.

Today, Barrett is one of Belmont’s most prized recreational assets. Those wings have been subdivided into rooms that serve the diverse needs of Belmont residents. In addition to sports fields, dance studios, an after-school classroom, theatre/multi purpose room, teen center, community garden and a preschool, Barrett is also home to 26 visual artists who occupy the space known as 1870 Art Center.

With all that activity, it might be hard to imagine any further use for this 3.25-acre site, but Director Jonathan Gervais is preparing to ask members of the community to do just that.

“I get a sense that something is bubbling up,” said Gervais in response to the increased activity at Barrett.

When asked about the potential for expansion and improvement, Gervais explained, “It’s a community discussion we’d like to start. Davey Glen and Semeria (parks) are almost complete, and our department will then be ready to move onto Barrett.” 

The Parks and Recreation Commission has ranked the revitalization of Barrett relatively high on its priority list, and the Belmont City Council agreed at its Feb. 8 meeting, placing Barrett on its list of new projects being recommended for ranking.

Although the City Council has placed Barrett on its priority list for future upgrading, Mayor Coralin Feierbach would like to see some short-term improvements.

“I’d like to see Barrett upgraded a bit now," she said. "It would look a lot better with some paint and landscaping.”

Long term, Feierbach stressed the importance of having a center that reflects the wishes and needs of the Belmont residents. “When we start exploring the options for Barrett, we need to have everyone in the community represented---sports groups, families, neighbors, and people who use the park,” she said.

She also wants the discussion of the future of Barrett to take a sustainability approach. “Whatever we do, we have to do it with ‘green’ in mind, taking into consideration what we want in 2020 or 2030.”

The real question, Gervais says, is, “What does this become? Do we want to create European-style town square where dad can have a cup of coffee while his daughter is at ballet class? Or maybe partnerships with an established organization like the YMCA to generate revenue and help offset operating expenses.”

“This is the time for a full and open discussion of the possibilities,” he added. “There needs to be a planning process to engage all community members and figure out the right combination of functions.”

A recent survey revealed citizens would like a community swimming pool and a centralized meeting place.

The next step, said Gervais, is to form a group of community members to take a look at all aspects of long term redevelopment of Barrett -- whether to fix it up, or to completely level it and start anew. Currently there is no central gas heat or hot water at Barrett, and the roofs need to be replaced.

Although there is a steady amount of activity throughout the day, late afternoon is when Barrett really comes alive. Footsteps Child Care, an after-school program for local elementary students, opens its doors and a steady stream of first and second graders from stream into the cheery classroom.  

Footsteps site director Carrie Janway stresses the convenience of Barrett for after school care.

“It’s very convenient, and some of the kids have siblings at the Community Learning Center [preschool on the same site].” Through its partnership with Belmont Parks and Recreation, Footsteps offers enrichment activities including Lego engineering, chess, art, and Spanish. Janway added that the Footsteps program is open to kids from all schools, not just Central.

Despite the addition of stage flooring, mirrors and ballet bars in the center’s two dance studios, Gervais cites the dance program as an example of the need for overall improvements.

“The dance program is booming," he said. "It’s filling up and thriving, yet people notice the condition of the aging facility and they want to see some changes.”

But not everyone thinks it’s time for a change.

Jim Ahearn, who's lived next to Barrett for 15 years, and has been the center’s building superintendent for as many years, has a different view.

“I like it the way it is, I don’t want to see any changes,” Ahearn said in a straight-forward manner that reflected his 30 years in the Marines.

Ahearn is also one of the performers Belmont Community Players, the local theatre group that puts on the popular annual melodrama.

Ahearn feels the theatre -- which is also used as a multi purpose room for dance and art classes -- is adequate for his theatre group and mentioned that the San Carlos Children’s Theatre also now uses the Barrett theatre for its productions.

On a recent unseasonably balmy winter afternoon, moms played with their toddlers on the tot lot, Footsteps kids tossed a Nerf football, girls in pink tights and ballet slippers filed into the dance studios, a group of adults gathered in the theatre for a line dance class, and three happy Bernese mountain dogs and a Labradoodle tromped around the field after their owners.

The Berneses'  owner, Frank Henry, has been a regular at Barrett for 25 years. “These are our seventh, eighth and ninth dogs taken to Barrett,” said Henry. “I live two blocks away and I come here every day.”

He is quick to point out that he and fellow dog owners would like to see some , and he has worked on a proposal that would allow sports teams, kids, and dog owners to all benefit from the wide open field.

The evolution of Barrett from post-war school to gathering spot to active community center reflects America’s history of such urban centers. In the early 1900s, community centers were based in schools, providing facilities to townspeople after school hours. Initially, public officials and politicians expressed concern that the centers might provide a focus for alternative political and social activity, but the collective need for neighborhood gathering spots for recreation soon erased those concerns.

Geographically, Barrett can be considered the nucleus of Belmont. Centrally located near the intersection of Alameda de las Pulgas and Ralston Avenue, the center is easily accessible from all points in Belmont and surrounding cities.

Like a city within a city, Barrett is a microcosm of life on the mid-Peninsula. It’s a facility that offers a combination of cultural, athletic, artistic, educational and agricultural activities in an urban space devoted to the city’s growing recreational interests and social support.

So, how would the city fund the redevelopment of Barrett Community Center? Gervais points to a current project that once seemed impossible.

“Look at the bike bridge -- that’s a good example of, ‘If it’s a good idea, the funding will come.’”

He’s referring to the pedestrian/bike bridge, currently under construction, which will be a safe means to cross over the freeway for access to the Belmont Sports Complex. Funding for that project was in question until stimulus money and other funding sources made it a reality.

Finding the right mix to suit the community’s needs is key, stresses Gervais.

“If we can take hold of people’s imaginations, then the design and the funding will come.”

Laura Dudnick March 05, 2011 at 08:07 PM
Joan, this article is lovely. I look forward to seeing what happens...
Howard Takenaka November 26, 2012 at 02:34 PM
What is the YMCA's opinion on including them in the planning?

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