The YMCA, severely criticized around town for the high-priced, exclusive membership fees at its new $5.3 million downtown facility, is planning three neighborhood centers for District youth -- sometime in the next five years.

Young people in the District have generally had to use deteriorating YMCA facilities for the past decade, Thomas B. Hargrave Jr., president of the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington, acknowledged as he announced the plans.

The planned neighborhood centers will be modest compared to the gleaming glass-and-brick Y at 17th and Rhode Island NW, he said, because that facility is the downtown headquarters for the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington.

It includes an international meeting hall, gymnasium, handball and racketball courts and Olympic-sized swimming pool.

The neighborhood centers will have only one gymnasium among them and no swimming pool.

Two are planned for Northwest Washington. One of them, Hargrave said, will be at or near the Anthony Bowen Center at 1816 12th St. NW, and the other in a neighborhood north of Howard University. The location of the third facility has not yet been determined.

Currently, there are only two YMCA facilities available at affordable cost to young men in the District: the Bowen facility and a joint YMCA-YWCA extension center at 3431 Benning Rd. NE.

The planned centers will provide space for YMCA activities that range from craft programs to yoga classes. "Many people only see the 'Y' as a cheap recreation center for their kids, but we are much more than that," Hargrave said.

The new centers are planned for completion in the next five years, but construction could start on the first center as late as 1982, said Hargrave.

"We have to see what the fund-raising climate is like. If we are still on the edge of a recession, it will be impossible for us to raise enough money to build even the first neighborhood center," said Hargrave, who added that it is too early to determine the cost of the three centers.

"We want to build first-class facilities for District youth," he said.

At the Anthony Bowen Y, the swimming pool has been closed for more than 20 years, paint is peeling and pipes are rusting. Teen-agers have had only two floors to play either basketball or games with worn equipment.

One of them, Tim Johnson, 19, waiting his turn to shoot pool at the Bowen Y, told a reporter, "You know, man, I don't think it is right that you have to pay all that money to go to the downtown gym just to sweat.

"It just ain't right that we have to play ball here and there is that nice Y downtown."

Although he has never been to the downtown Y, reports from his friends indicate it is a basketball player's dream, he said.

The Bowen Y is a different story, Johnson said: "You can't play ball. The floor is all messed up.

"You can hurt your leg running on that floor. They said they were going to fix it, but they haven't done a thing."

Outside Bowen, William Hall, 16, a student at Cardozo High, agreed the Bowen Y was old and should be repairedd "It should be fixed up because we don't have nowhere else to go."

William Rumsey, director of the D.C. Department of Recreation and chairman of the Bowen Y, said he is fighting to make sure the Bowen facility is the first priority for repair: "No child should have to have a last-resort facility like Anthony Bowen to go in and play. We want to make sure the Y lives up to it motto for youth."

In recent years, the YMCA has been the target of criticism for building the facility for adults at 1711 Rhode Island Ave. NW with initiation costs and membership fees on a sliding scale ranging up to $750 -- beyond the reach of the District's poor.

Hargrave said that the membership fees have made the National Capital YMCA a sound investment. He also pointed out that 800 of the 6,000 membership slots there are reserved for those earning less than $14,000 annually and cost $120 a year.

Hargrave said the YMCA is only now able to consider building a new facility because for the past decade it has fought to eliminate more than $1 million in debt.

He said both the deteriorating Bowen facility and the old Central YMCA, formerly at 18th and G streets NW, had drained YMCA resources because of costly repairs. The problems presented by the Central YMCA were solved when the General Services Administration in 1973 announced the federal government needed the 17,000 square feet of land occupied by the Central Y for a Federal Home Loan Bank building.

Profit from the sale of the building and $700,000 acquired through fund-raising activities were used to build the National Capital YMCA, Hargrave said.

Now that the YMCA has been able to cut its debt to $500,000 with the elimination of the Central YMCA and closing of several branch facilities, Hargrave said, officials can begin looking at expansion of branches in the District: "Before it was not a matter of expanding in the District, it was a matter of survival."

Hargrave said the YMCA decided to build the modern downtown facility for adults because studies showed that most Washington-area young men live in the suburbs or near the decaying Bowen facility.

The YMCA will give top priority to replacing or improving the Anthony Bowen Center, built in 1911, Hargrave said. The deteriorating center was the only facility available to Washington blacks during segregation.

Selling the Bowen center and using the profits to build another facility nearby is the most feasible idea, he said, explaining that the cost of rehabilitating the center is now approximately $3.5 million.

He said officials have also considered converting Bowen to low-income housing for the elderly or demolishing the structure. He said there has been some opposition to demolishing the structure because of its historic value as the first black YMCA in the country.