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No more free parking at the Midtown YWCA and members are pissed

The Midtown YWCA used to have free parking. Not for long.

The Midtown YWCA used to have free parking. Not for long. Star Tribune

Cindy takes swimming classes to help her cope with her arthritis. As long as she can remember, use of the 178 parking stalls at the Midtown YWCA has been free for members like her. But a couple of weeks ago, she and her friends got wind that that was about to change.

Some people got emails, some got snail mail, Cindy says. (“Cindy” isn’t her real name; she says she's concerned gym leadership might recognize her name, see her “as a threat,” and ask her to leave.) Other members didn’t get any heads up at all. Eventually, word got around that the gym was installing a gate and charging its members for parking – on top of their membership dues.

The YWCA didn’t respond to interview requests, but it posted a number of reasons for the switch on its website, which makes it seem as though the gym’s parking lot is practically under siege. Between the 30,000 riders on average that take the Hiawatha light rail on a given weekday to the new Hennepin County Services building located right across the street -- neither of which were there when the gym first opened -- the lot is prized real estate.

After the Lake Street park-and-ride (which used to give people a place to put their cars while they rode the rails) closed in 2015, the gym lot became even more alluring for drivers in need of a place to park. There are days when the gym’s nearly 2,000 daily visitors struggle to find a spot. The website says staff have been forced to try and confront anyone parking in the lot who doesn’t have a gym membership, to the point where there have been “safety concerns.”

A YWCA spokesperson told the Star Tribune that the gym enforced parking rules by leaving a note on the first offense and having the car towed upon a second. Cindy’s not so sure.

“As far as I can tell, they’ve been doing nothing,” she says.

Regardless, gym leadership says it’s found a solution in the new parking gate, which is supposed to arrive late September. A pass will cost members $15 a month, unless they have a scholarship. The price is supposed to cover the cost of installation -- which will cost about $200,000 -- and maintenance.

That, to Cindy and plenty of other gym members who have been posting about the change on online forums, doesn’t seem fair. Why make members foot the bill for parking when they haven’t been the ones stealing parking spots?

“My wife and I have not decided whether or not we are going to quit the YWCA or where we will go if we do,” reads a post on the new gate. “But the current situation is untenable.”

A few people posting on the forums are confused at the outrage. Yeah, the new fee is annoying, they say, but is $15 really a big deal? Cindy says it is, at least, to some people. She’s retired, and “doing okay” financially, but that plenty of her gym friends -- some of which are on Medicare -- have budgets too tight to handle the extra cost.

“A lot of us don’t want to say ‘yes, I’m too poor for it,’” she says. But that’s the reality.

Cindy knows she needs to go to the gym. Managing her arthritis pain means she has to keep her body moving. But after the gates go up, she thinks she’ll find herself going less, even though she knows she shouldn’t. That, if anything, is her biggest beef with the gym’s decision. It could end up costing her more than $15 a month. It could end up costing her health.