Proposed Boys and Girls Club site draws pushback from neighbors

AUSTIN (KXAN) —   University Hills neighbors have slowed efforts to open Austin’s first stand-alone Boys and Girls Club, expressing concerns about increased traffic and the overall impact to nearby homes. Over the last two years, the non-profit narrowed its search from 32 proposed sites to one, at Turner Lane and Springdale in East Austin. The $8-$10 million project is another example of Austinites grappling with growth.

The Boys and Girls Club of the Austin Area says the number of children living in poverty in Travis County has grown 149 percent since 2002, with the number of economically disadvantaged children in the community nearing 100,000. As a result, the non-profit has been searching for a stand-alone facility to serve low-income children for the past two years. Now that the Boys and Girls Club has the location, it just needs zoning approval.

The steps leading up to that were tougher than the Boys and Girls Club’s Chief Executive Officer Mark Kiester says they ever could have imagined, facing strong opponents of the project within the University Hills Neighborhood Association.

“It’s been a long and somewhat, what I’d say odd journey,” Kiester said. “We met first with LBJ and then Pecan Springs and it was like kumbaya. It was like, this is wonderful for our families, this is wonderful for our kids. How soon can you get here? And then we met with University Hills, and it was pretty contentious from the get-go.”

Earlier this year, the Planning and Zoning Committee voted unanimously to approve the Boys and Girls Club’s request to change the zoning from commercial residential to community recreational.

“I think one of the odd things about the journey has been, we are down-zoning this piece of property. We are decreasing density. Which typically, neighborhood groups like,” Kiester said.

The Boys and Girls Club anticipates on an average week, the facility would have 250 kids a day. Kiester told KXAN within two miles of the site, there are 10,000 low income children (Title I) who could benefit from their services.

“The past 10 years, the fastest growing demographic in Travis County has been kids living in poverty,” Kiester said. “Those kids that come from poverty have a tendency to stay in poverty unless there is some meaningful programming done with them as they grow up. It’s not just the Boys and Girls Clubs.”

“We want them to minimize the impact on the immediate neighbors and to make sure that the traffic access impact is not adding to the already difficult traffic out here,” University Hills Contact Team Vice Chair Lynn Marshall told KXAN. “They’re not against children’s activities, they’re not against youth programs, but anything has an impact.”

Kiester explained the back of the facilities would be at least 50 feet away from the closest homes. Some call the close proximity a concern. Others say it’s a convenience.

“I’m looking forward to it being right there so I have a place to take my youngest one to go play, have a field to play in,” Keri Aladeniyi told KXAN, who lives just three doors down from the proposed site. She said she disagrees with the concerns of the University Hills contact team. “I don’t think that their frame of thinking in where the neighborhood is going matches up with the reality of it.”

Kiester said benefits of having a stand-alone facility include the fact that it can stay open throughout the summer, unlike programs housed within school buildings, and kids from throughout the surrounding area can benefit.

In terms of annual budgets, he said, “We’re the largest Boys and Girls Club in America that doesn’t have one.”

“Things are changing all over Austin and I realize that. However, the moving of a project as large as the Boys and Girls Club is very troubling to me and my neighbors. Because of the increased traffic and also for safety issues,” Erma Morrow said, who has lived in University Hills for 35 years.

The Boys and Girls Club said amenities in the outdoor area would include a baseball field, tennis courts, basketball hoops, a soccer field, seating and play area, a bus lot and room to expand. Inside the facilities, there are plans to include a library, recording studio, performing arts area, learning center, STEM lab, game room, kitchen, and more.

“We can’t make a decision that says simply because you label it as for children, therefore we won’t think about it any further,” Marshall said. “Our job is to consider all aspects of it.”

“There’s plenty of people in the community that this could serve. And I don’t mind a little bit of extra traffic if it’s going to serve much kids that are under-served.” Aladeniyi said.

In an emailed statement to KXAN, Council Member Ora Houston said:

Individuals who live in the neighborhood know the positive and negative impacts regarding changes to the Land Development Code. The neighborhood has expressed concerns about the changes to the neighborhood plan they developed in 2007, which includes a small-scale commercial strip center and housing. The neighbors also have concerns about the ability of the parents to collect their children from a non-school based club at a location near Manor Road and Highway 183 during rush hour, especially during the construction of the 183 Toll Road project.”

After months of meetings, negotiations and emails, council is scheduled to take up the zoning case on Thursday.

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