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Neighborhood health center in race against displacement

Wednesday, May 22, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Austin Public Health wants to build a new neighborhood public health center adjacent to Dove Springs District Park in District 2, but some City Council members are concerned the $12.4 million neighborhood center won’t be ready in time to have a substantial impact on the lives of those who most need it.

At Council’s work session Tuesday morning, Capital Contracting Officer Rolando Fernandez Jr. urged Council to approve a resolution at Thursday’s meeting that will allow the department to move ahead with a design-build method (where one firm provides design and construction) for the center and avoid adding any additional time to the project.

As long as Council approves the resolution this week, Fernandez said, the city can finalize a design criteria manual by October and send out requests for bids in the fall. Capital Contracting could then likely bring a contract to Council for approval in January next year to kick off the design and construction process to be completed around July 2023.

Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, who represents District 2, said the neighborhood has needed a health center for the past decade but she worried that the community may largely be displaced by the time it opens, roughly four years from now. While clinics and neighborhood centers offer different services, Garza noted that the city’s affordability issue has already prompted Central Health to spread out to the city’s newer low-income neighborhoods to meet the needs of further displaced communities.

Elaborating in an email, Garza told the Austin Monitor that Central Health is currently caught “trying to build clinics in areas that need them most, because the ones existing now are far from the communities they were built for.”

Without enough clinics in those areas, Central Health is putting resources into cheaper, quick solutions like its 40-foot mobile clinic that will be serving low-income residents in Creedmoor and Colony Park this summer.

Garza worried the city could end up in a similar situation with this center. In her email she explained that the center would have really helped the Dove Springs neighborhood during and after the 2013 floods. The effects of those floods, she said, prompted the city to build the center.

“It finally got on the ballot and was approved in 2018, and now it looks like it won’t be completed until 2023,” she said. “While I know it takes time to mobilize the funding and get the design right, my goal is to help residents in Dove Springs, and our timeline is already at least 10 years behind when they needed that help the most.”

“I don’t know the solution, but I just really want us to get this built as quickly as possible,” she told Fernandez.

Fernandez responded that while it’s possible a qualified firm may propose a shorter design and construction timeline, the city should allow a minimum of five or six weeks for contractors to consider bidding on the project in order to get the best options.

“As long as we’re not mitigating that time period and allowing folks to do their due diligence and give us a good proposal, we can look at every other area to condense the time,” he said.

Ultimately, Garza agreed not to hold the project up Thursday with the condition that a public-private partnership could still be explored for the center, which Fernandez said would still be possible under the design-build method.

The planned center will provide a variety of services including food and clothes distribution, employment and social work case management, health education and screenings, a supplemental nutrition program, immunizations, and affordable child care for up to 75 children.

A final list of services has not yet been compiled. The city will be gathering public input on potential services at a public meeting at the Mendez Middle School cafeteria on June 13 at 6:30 p.m.

Photo by M.Fitzsimmons [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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