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Boys & Girls Club gets nod from Planning Commission

Thursday, February 4, 2016 by Jack Craver

A major new Boys & Girls Club will likely be coming to Northeast Austin, thanks to action taken by the Planning Commission at its Jan. 26 meeting last week.

Despite objections from some nearby residents and opposition from the University Hills Neighborhood Association, the panel unanimously adopted a recommendation from city staff to change the zoning on a 10-acre plot of land at 4717 Turner Lane to allow for the construction of what the nonprofit after-school recreation group says will be its “legacy club.”

“I don’t think there is such a thing as too many services in underserved communities,” said Commissioner Angela Pineyro de Hoyos in support of the recommendation. “I would love this in my backyard.”

Supporters of the Boys & Girls Club also came to express their enthusiasm for the project, which they argued would be an invaluable community asset.

“I don’t know how to express to you the difference between a recreation center and the Boys & Girls Club,” said Marcus Walls, a UT-Austin undergraduate who said the club made his college education possible. “They gave me the resources and encouragement I needed.”

The panel had previously postponed a decision on the project in hopes that discussion between the club and neighbors could lead to an agreement. Although Steve Drenner, the representative for the club, came armed with a variety of conditions the organization was willing to submit to, officials from the University Hills Neighborhood Association said that they didn’t feel their opinions had counted for much.

Joan Bartz, president of the neighborhood group, said she had had no part in crafting a private restrictive covenant that Drenner had proposed the neighborhood association enter into with the Boys & Girls Club. Some of the legal provisions of the covenant struck her as threats.

“I don’t much like being threatened,” she said, later adding that her group would not shy away from a legal battle.

Neighbors also questioned the location and necessity of the project. The Boys & Girls Club of Austin lists 25 chapters on its website, all of which are operated in other facilities, such as those belonging to schools, the Housing Authority of Austin or Southwest Key Programs. Some argued that it would make more sense for the club to be located east of nearby U.S. Route 183, where there are a number of schools.

“There is not a need for this particular project in our area at this time,” said Seth Fowler, chair of the University Hills contact team. He said there are already seven school-based clubs in the area.

Neighbors also complained that the developers had misled them about the intent of the club, suggesting that it was being built to serve the nearby Austin Achieve public charter school.

“I’ve attended both meetings, and the target audience continues to change,” said Sylvia Little. “First it was the charter school, now it’s the Dobie Middle School.”

Drenner said that the project was in no way linked to Austin Achieve but that the club would be happy to serve kids who go to the school. He also said that, unlike other Boys & Girls Club programs throughout the city, which are funded by grants that may eventually dry up, the legacy club will provide a permanent service.

“I think you’ll understand that this legacy club will do things that those school-based programs can’t do,” he said.

Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza, who supported the recommendation and devised many of the restrictions to be placed on the property, told the Austin Monitor that neighbors had a number of “rational frustrations.” For instance, she said, they may already be frustrated by a loophole in state law that exempts charter schools from some of the development requirements imposed on other public schools.

“They have this school that sets up shop in the middle of their neighborhood, and the compatibility standards don’t apply,” Zaragoza said. Some worry that recreational space provided by the Boys & Girls Club might in effect be an “ancillary program in order to grow a school that is causing a lot of difficulties in their neighborhood,” she added.

John Armbrust, the executive director of Austin Achieve, called allegations that his school was in some way involved with the project “completely false,” and said that the new club would in no way boost enrollment in the school.

He was nevertheless happy that such a facility was coming to the area. “It’s kind of silly to me that some of these groups are opposed to a club – it’s an exciting thing to have a flagship Boys & Girls Club in this neighborhood,” he said.

The commission did grant neighbors a partial victory, however.

First, in response to complaints about safety and privacy from neighbors who live next door to the property, the club agreed to change its plans for a proposed public pedestrian path that would have run alongside the property. Instead, the path will cut through the property, with access via two openings in the perimeter fence.

In addition, the commission voted to prohibit the extension of nearby Ashland Drive, which neighbors worried might become a through street, as well as to impose a number of conditions – on hours of operation, pick-up times, field lighting and other potential nuisances – through a conditional overlay, a public restrictive covenant and a private restrictive covenant.

Finally, the commission specified that if the property is purchased for a purpose besides outdoor recreation in the future, its uses and development standards will be limited to Neighborhood Commercial (LR) zoning, which is generally more restrictive and permits less intensity than the Community Commercial (GR) zoning the commission approved for the club.

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