From crisis to state-of-the-art

It’s clear that Sandee Blechman relishes challenge. After all, she came aboard the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco eight years ago, as its assistant director of finance and operations, at a time when the organization had slipped into crisis mode. Facing a $1.6 million budget deficit, the JCC was struggling for financial health.

“My first job was to put together some realistic projections of operating revenue and expenses, and to find out if there was a way to make the budget balance,” says Blechman, who now wears the title of chief operating officer. Her assessment: “There was no way” the nonprofit could achieve long-term viability at its 3200 California St. home. Besides having “seismic issues,” the building was too small, the spaces inappropriate.

Though massive organizational changes were made, and the fitness center closed, remodeled and reopened in a lease agreement with Pinnacle Fitness, the real thrust was far more ambitious. “We developed a strategic plan,” says Blechman, a former Chicagoan who came to the Bay Area 25 years ago to get her MBA from Stanford. With an interest in the nonprofit sector, Blechman went to work for the JCC in 1995, after seven years at Mt. Zion Hospital and eight with the San Francisco Art Institute.

After delving into the JCC’s situation, it became clear, she says, that “the only way it could survive was in a new facility.”

That facility, still at California and Presidio, should be open to the public by January. And Blechman, like many other JCC staff members, couldn’t be more excited.

It’s not just that a state-of-the-art building has replaced the old one, but the programming has also been revamped. Blechman calls the new, improved JCC “a significant institution for the San Francisco community.”

In an extremely collaborative process that involved input from JCC staff as well as Jewish communal leaders, the new structure was designed “from the inside out,” Blechman says. “Form follows function.” The $60 million building (of an $80 million budget that included a $10 million endowment and $10 for repayment of debt) was designed to serve the JCC’s needs. First staff came up with the programs, then they had the architects draw up the types of spaces that would best suit them.

“My role was to make sure that this building served the JCC programs and functions, but there’s also these specialty spaces — three catering kitchens, theaters, the fitness center … I was the point person for all that — how these integrate into function,” Blechman says.

To do that, she made sure staff was involved in the process. Their input was essential, she insists. “In order to develop this building, it’s taken the brainpower of almost everybody on staff.” That, in turn, has helped everyone “buy into” the project, she attests. “Everybody feels a piece of ownership for the building.”

One highlight of the new JCC is the Koret Center for Health, Fitness and Sport. The three-story, 42,000-square-foot fitness center includes a five-lane lap pool; a shallow, warm-water teaching and therapeutic pool and spa; cardiovascular equipment and free weights; basketball and volleyball courts, a “wellness center” in partnership with UCSF’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine; physical therapy services and other amenities. The fitness center will be managed by Club One; the group “understands the business” and has “all the systems in place” to operate it, according to Blechman.

Another key element of which she is proud, is the 500-seat theater. The room was designed for flexible usage, with a 1500 square foot stage, top-notch audiovisual equipment and acoustical treatments, and plush, retractable seating that can be pushed against the wall, allowing for the 5,000 square foot space to serve as a ballroom for banquets.

Already, 60 performances have been booked at the new JCC, and that’s just for starters. Though many will be Jewish-themed, many won’t, Blechman explained. For example, the San Francisco Jazz Conservatory will be using the space, and putting together a new jazz band to perform in it. Robert Moses dance troupe will be involved, and Blechman hopes to have to have bimonthly film showings.

The Eugene and Eleanor Friend Center for the Arts will offer space for exhibits of all kinds.

Also, “We’re really focused on Jewish education,” notes Blechman, adding the JCC received funding from the Taube Foundation to create the Taube Center for Jewish Life. Rabbi Yoel Kahn will be the center’s director.

The JCC will continue to offer regular preschool programs, and, for those who need child care while they’re at the center, the JCC will accommodate up to 17 children on a drop-in basis.

Adult education, émigré programs and a teen center are also in the offing. And, in a nod to people’s needs for food and shopping, there will be a restaurant and Judaica shop.

Recognizing today’s necessity for — as Blechman puts it — “a safe and secure” environment, the facility will be equipped with surveillance cameras, security guards and, if necessary, metal detectors.

Underground parking with 181 spaces will be made available to JCC users, for a fee.

Blechman expects the new JCC to open by January. Acknowledging it will take some time for staff to learn how to use its new systems — phones, AV, security, etc. — and that some minor construction might continue through January, she expects the JCC to be fully operational by Feb. 1.

As for membership, it’s going exceedingly well, she reports. Sales began July 1, with a conservative goal of selling 1,600 memberships by January. That figure has already been surpassed: By mid-August, Blechman says, 2,600 center memberships (which include full fitness privileges) were sold, and sales remain strong.

Although the registration fee of $150 and monthly dues of $68 are on par with other centers, numerous incentives are currently being offered. There are discounts for synagogue members, seniors age 60 and older, and Jewish Community Federation donors, among others. Also, Jewish communal workers and their families will always be entitled to a 20 percent discount.

Lesser-priced community memberships are also available and include discounts to programs, but not full fitness center privileges.

With membership sales brisk, construction in the home stretch and programming well underway, Blechman and other administrators are juggling many balls at once. Says Blechman, “The challenge is doing so many different things at the same time: planning, dealing with details of design, and at the same time continuing to operate existing programs,” most of which are held in the JCC’s temporary home in the Presidio.

Looking back on the planning process and the results, Blechman assures that “what we’re doing is totally consistent with the original vision.”

Still, she says, “I don’t think that we all could possibly have understood the complexity of the task that we were undertaking, nor adequately predicted the total cost. It’s just not cheap to build this kind of facility in an urban setting.”

She says this as a matter of fact, without a hint of exasperation.

The Noe Valley resident, a wife and mother of three — ages 14, 18 and 21 — exudes enthusiasm for the task at hand. “I work hard,” she acknowledges, but adds, “One of my great secrets is I take Fridays off to play golf.”

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.