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East side Boys and Girls Club draws crowd at Planning Commission

Friday, October 30, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

City Hall was filled with children from the Boys and Girls Club of Austin – and its opponents – at the Tuesday night meeting of the Planning Commission.

The students were there to support a zoning change from Single Family (SF-3) and Neighborhood Commercial (LR) zoning to Community Commercial (GR) zoning at 4717 Turner Lane, with some traffic and use limitations. The zoning change will allow for construction of a stand-alone facility for the Boys and Girls Legacy Club of Austin. Currently, Austin’s is the only large-scale Boys and Girls Club in the country without a stand-alone facility.

City staff is recommending the zoning change. However, nearby neighbors showed up to oppose the rezoning.

University Hills Contact Team Chair Seth Fowler said his neighborhood was “overwhelmingly against the project.”

“This is not an objection to the Boys and Girls Club. Anyone that wanted to redevelop this property with the same zoning request and with the same issues – we would have to come down and voice our opposition,” said Fowler. “We oppose this project due to the scale of it, due to the traffic, and simply because it’s not needed.”

Chief among Fowler’s concerns is the fact that the site was a landfill in the 1960s. Though the developer has said that the site is a safe place to build a parking lot, Fowler questioned whether that was true. He also expressed concern about traffic, saying that buses could create a lot of traffic at intersections, and admitted suspicions about a plan to install a crash gate at Ashland Drive, which leads into the neighborhood. He saw that crash gate as a stepping stone that would eventually lead to the extension of the street.

At the end of a long public hearing, commissioners voted unanimously, 11-0, to postpone the issue to allow the two sides to come to some agreement. The case will return to the commission on Dec. 8.

Steve Drenner of the Drenner Group spoke on behalf of the Boys and Girls Club of Austin. He detailed the plans for a 30,000-square-foot, two-story building and ballfields. He explained that the majority of students would be bused from school for programs and picked up by family members afterward, and the orientation of the plan was designed to keep traffic to the north, where Ed Bluestein Road (U.S. 183) is.

Drenner maintained that, under the current site plan, there “wouldn’t be any reason for cars to be on the south side,” where the neighborhood is located.

Coronado Hills resident Sammy Easterday said she found it offensive that a developer would “charge in and change zoning to an established neighborhood.” She pointed out that there was a YMCA in the immediate vicinity that serves everyone.

“Make no mistake, this is not about Boys and Girls Club. I support them entirely. This is about a politically and financially powerful developer adding campus space to his rogue charter school buildings and adding to his personal wealth,” said Easterday, referring to the nearby Austin Achieve charter school, which has recently been a source of tension in the neighborhood.

Ex-officio commission member Jayme Mathias, who is an AISD trustee, said that there was “no doubt” the proposed club would serve low-income students and that he saw the value of the project. However, he said he was saddened that a charter school “has created such tension in this neighborhood that people are opposed to this project.”

“The idea that this is somehow connected to the charter school is just absolutely false,” said Drenner.

Drenner hesitated to say that children from the charter school wouldn’t be welcomed into the club if they were in need of services, but he did offer to make sure there wasn’t a bus picking up students.

In his rebuttal, Drenner offered to prohibit the site from becoming “a future bus depot” and keep Ashland Drive from turning into a through street. After questions from commissioners, he said he would be happy to include pedestrian and bicycle connectivity to Ashland Drive if they wished, and said it had been limited only to satisfy neighborhood concerns. Commissioner Jose Vela said that prohibition made “no sense whatsoever to him” and that he would hate to see neighborhood families forced to access the club by driving from U.S. 183 instead of walking or biking.

As for traffic, Drenner urged commissioners to “think through” just how much the current plan would contribute to the existing situation, given plans for direct access to U.S. 183.

Drenner also assured commissioners that the amount of planning and fundraising that had gone into the proposal wouldn’t have been done if it wasn’t needed. “Said simply, what you can do at a school site is pretty limiting,” he said. “Not that they don’t do great work, but what you can do at a stand-alone facility is much greater.”

In terms of the landfill, Drenner assured the commission that testing had been done and that using that site as a parking lot was “absolutely appropriate.”

Mark Kiester, CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Austin, explained that while the organization has 25 clubs serving children across the city, the new facility will allow it to serve an additional 250 kids each day, including those in school-based clubs who may soon lose their funding. That said, Kiester explained that given the fact that 67,000 children live in poverty in Travis County, there are no plans to scale back existing in-school programs.

“Kids living in poverty is the fastest-growing demographic segment in Travis County,” said Kiester. “Over the past decade, while our general population has increased 35 to 40 percent, the number of kids living in poverty has increased 149 percent.”

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