“Any community that has a strong Y is a stronger community,” said Bill Seedes, executive director of the Bear Levin Studer YMCA in Pensacola, Fla.

A bold statement, but one that proves more accurate each day since the new downtown Pensacola Bear Levin Studer Family YMCA opened its doors. The $16 million, 52,000-square-foot building was recently honored by the American Institute of Architecture Northwest Florida Chapter with a Merit Award of Excellence for New Work.

With the new facility, the YMCA continues to show its commitment to deeply impact the Pensacola community, beyond gym memberships.

“What the Y is demonstrating right now is that we are a main focus of the revitalization,” Seedes said. “The response from the community has been overwhelming, and much quicker than we anticipated.”

Since opening its doors in November, the Y has added more than 3,000 membership units, increasing its membership to more than 9,000 people. Seedes credits the growth to the new facility, which is much more open and accessible to guests. The building offers plenty of usable space, making it a desirable place for Pensacola residents to get fit, meet and socialize, and lead healthier lifestyles.

“By providing easy access to all of these resources and fitness activities, this project is generating enormous interest within the local community and is having a positive impact on people’s lifestyles,” said Sunil Dubey, RS&H project design architect.

The architectural design team of RS&H and Bay Design Associates worked together on the project, which is carefully situated in the historic Palafox district of Pensacola and is the first component of a master development plan. The team designed a contemporary reflection of the latest trends in athletic facility design with more traditional materials such as brick and stucco to match its historical surroundings.

“The most challenging aspect of this project was in designing a building aesthetic that was both cutting-edge and also regional,” Dubey said. “The local planning and zoning board was adamant that the building remain true to the historical site for which it was planned.”

Seedes thinks the team was successful in doing so, noting how well the exterior blends with both the existing environment and the new construction currently underway.

Inside, the new fitness center includes a state-of-the-art aquatics center, gymnasium, group exercise rooms, a wellness center, a demonstration kitchen, and a “Kid Zone.” The oversized lobby and corridor design allow for social gatherings and an inviting atmosphere for guests, where they can view the many activities going on throughout the facility upon entering. The prominent use of glass throughout the building promotes healthy living, allowing for visual connections between different programs and pouring in lots of natural light.

The facility has become a gathering space for the community, whether it’s used as meeting space for non-profits, for car seat safety or nutritional classes, or as a fun, safe place for teens to get together. Downtown Pensacola is becoming a live-work-play community, and the YMCA is a cornerstone for the movement.

“The grand scope of the facility has far exceeded what we expected,” said Seedes. “Five to six years ago, you could shoot a cannon off in downtown Pensacola and not hit anyone.

“Now, when I leave work at night, there’s a new excitement downtown.”