When the Redmond Senior Center abruptly closed in 2019, seniors on the Eastside grieved the loss of a mainstay but were relieved that many activities they relied on for meals, socialization and education were relocated to other parts of the city.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began just months after the senior center closure, most of those activities, too, shut down. Thousands of seniors who didn’t have their beloved gathering space were now further isolated, and without a place to look forward to going when buildings did reopen.
“Seniors had viewed [the center] as their home away from home, their safe go-to space. It gives them a place to belong,” said LouAnn Ballew, a volunteer co-chair of the Redmond Senior Advisory Committee. “By not having it, it added to the seniors’ sense of loss, and COVID was a double whammy with having the loss of the senior center and then being dispersed around the city.”
A new senior center won’t open until at least 2023, but the plan may soon be one step closer to fruition. The Redmond City Council expects to vote next month on the design of a proposed $41 million Redmond Senior and Community Center, which advocates say will meet both the needs of the area’s older-adult population and the community at large.
The new building would be built on the same land as the old senior center. That site closed in September 2019, after inspectors discovered mold and other evidence of water leakage in the nearly 30-year-old building that city officials acknowledged wasn’t constructed well. It was demolished last year.
The proposed two-story 40,000-46,000 square foot building would have a dedicated senior wing that offers many of the amenities — like a senior library, lounge and patio — and activities of the previous 22,000 square foot senior center, and have a separate entrance that’s close to the parking lot and covered. The building would also house a community center for all residents, with recreation offerings like a jogging track, weight and cardio room and group exercise studios.
The city has long identified additional community space as a priority, as the population has increased while recreation space decreased. Redmond has about 71,000 residents, an increase of 32% from a decade ago, according to the U.S. census. Until 2017, Redmond operated a community center at the Old Redmond Schoolhouse, but relocated that year to the smaller Redmond Community Center at Marymoor Village through a lease with Lake Washington Institute of Technology.
“When we had to close the senior center in 2019, we started a pretty robust public process and really heard pretty loud and clear that this would be the ideal time to look at both the recreation and senior center together,” said Redmond Parks and Recreation Director Carrie Hite.
The city has $17 million in its budget for the center, and has additional funds from state and federal grants. The rest of the costs would be covered by additional capital improvement project funds, fundraising and councilmanic bonds, which are bonds not required by a vote and that don’t increase taxes.
Mayor Angela Birney said the city has enough to accommodate the costs, which she considered a “good investment in our city and community.” The senior center averaged nearly 50,000 visits every year, and was city-owned, rather than operated by a nonprofit like many other senior centers, and offered most activities and services for free.
The urgency of the project was magnified, Hite said, as the pandemic continued and seniors in particular were encouraged to isolate to prevent acquiring the coronavirus. That has led to feelings of loneliness that Ballew said persist among some seniors. The city provides curbside lunches and virtual activities, like exercise or flower arranging classes, and committee members have set up phone chains and tried to reach out to those they haven’t heard from.
“That has helped ease the loneliness for some people, but for others, the lack of physical contact has been keen,” she said.
The pandemic underscored the importance of a dedicated gathering spot, said Redmond resident Deanna Francis, who noted that in the evenings and on the weekends it also functioned as a rental space for groups or events like wedding receptions.
“There is no other venue in Redmond to fill that need, and the growth in this area,” Francis said. “Just to meet and have a cup of coffee, that’s important to seniors, and I definitely think [the pandemic] underscores the need, not just for seniors, but the general population.”