For more than three decades, the Charles Houston Recreation Center has been a gathering place in the Parker Gray Historic District — the heart of Alexandria, Va.'s African American community. Although the 21,000-square-foot facility received a facelift in 1990, decades of use, coupled with expanding needs, meant that the city's best choice was to start over and rebuild it for new generations of residents.

Inside the new U-shaped, 35,000-square-foot center is a gymnasium with fitness equipment and a weight room, a dance studio, and rooms for boxing, games and the center's administrative personnel. A section for seniors, which is intentionally separated from the more active areas, is equipped with a commercial kitchen, several multipurpose rooms and areas for pre-schoolers. An outdoor swimming pool and a "tot lot" fill the central area of the U. As part of Alexandria's Eco-City Initiative, the center was built with materials made with recycled content, and includes energy efficient cooling and heating systems and lighting, water saving fixtures and a "green" roof.

The new Charles Houston Recreation Center has become the centerpiece of the area, along with the nearby Black History Museum and the Watson Reading Room, which focuses on African-American history and culture. Since the facility opened in February, its use has increased 167 percent, and senior program participation has increased 75 percent. Even the meeting room space use has increased 85 percent. The center is now open until midnight on Thursday and Friday, and Alexandria Mayor William Euille credited the center's increased availability for the lack of youth-related criminal activities over the past summer.

Population: 142,000

Project: Recreation Center Modernization

Cost: $15 million

Date completed: February 2009

Agencies/contractors: Department of Public Services; Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities; Department of Planning and Zoning; Department of Transportation and Environmental Services; Lukmire Partnership; Costello Construction

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