The neighborhood youth center at 21-12 30th Road is planning to expand to a five-story community center, featuring new art and technology labs, basketball and swimming facilities and even a planetarium. The space will be accompanied by a 14-story, 112-unit residential building with retail on the first floor.
Variety’s team will present the plan in a public hearing this Thursday, May 24, at 6:30 p.m. at the Ravenswood Community Center at 35-40 21 St. The rezoning will ultimately require City Council approval.
The club has served the Astoria and Long Island City communities for 63 years, starting as the “Boys Club” in 1955. In addition to its free after-school program, the largest in western Queens, Variety offers classes in athletics, science, technology, media and more.
During the weekdays, the center welcomes nearly 150 children after school, acting as a community hub of learning and programming. But according to executive director Matthew Troy, there is an annual waitlist of 500 children that keeps growing.
“We simply don’t have enough space here to accommodate all the children and schools who want to be in our program,” Troy said.
The new facility would not only allow more students to participate, but would give the staff more resources to improve the quality of programming, Troy said.
“In order to ensure that we have the best possible programs to support future generations of children, we need a top-notch facility,” he said.
In the last few years, Variety has used a partnership model with several nonprofit, for-profit and community organizations to expand programming. Students now can use microscopes inside the BioBus in the parking lot, unleash their creativity in the makerspace, or create their own films in the media center.
The new building will allow the organization to take these partnerships to a new level. According to Variety’s board of directors, they plan to create a new tech incubator space, a nonprofit shared coworking space, and retail space where students can learn about entrepreneurship and management.
Corporate partners like Skanska, JetBlue and Spectrum have contributed their expertise, connecting students with employee volunteers.
Other uses included in the facility will be 80 Universal Pre-Kindergarten seats, 50 spots for child care, a 175-seat community theater, and a conference space that can seat 250 people.
The expansion comes at a time when the Astoria and Long Island City communities are growing in population. Troy noted that the club will not just accommodate that growth, but will continue to serve the three public housing developments in the neighborhood.
“Families are coming and demand keeps growing,” he said.
The executive director added that he also expects the costs of the programs to go down, thanks to funding from the project. Their core after-school program will remain free.
Walter Sanchez, president of Variety’s board, said the expansion has been in the works since 2012. The idea came after several board members saw that daytime hours at the club was underutilized.
After school, however, the club could not accommodate all of the children who wanted to attend programs due to budget restrictions, Sanchez said. The board then wanted to find a way to fund the organization’s operations “in perpetuity.”
The new community center will cost approximately $80 million to build. To help fund the facility, Variety will partner with a developer, who will build a 14-story, 112-unit residential building. Up to 30 percent of the apartments will be set aside as affordable housing.
Variety also owns the adjacent building, a 100-unit, 100 percent affordable housing facility for seniors.
“We think we’re doing our part for the neighborhood,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez said he recognizes the concerns about the residential building being too tall for the neighborhood, but he argued that it’s necessary to fund a larger expansion of the club.
Ultimately, he said, having a state-of-the-art community center for youth will have an “absolutely positive” effect for Astoria and Long Island City.
“We can have 500 kids in our after-school program, where they learn and develop their passion,” Sanchez said.
Tony Barsamian, a member of Variety’s board of directors for more than two decades, said the new facility will go a long way for the residents of the community. He added that the neighborhood has always welcomed new neighbors, and this “will be no exception.”
“Variety Boys and Girls Club has been the heart of our youth for generations,” he said. “This was one way to ensure that the tradition and good deeds of the past would be propelled into the future, knowing that we can continue on a better pathway for the children.”
For Troy, who will lead the longtime community organization through the expansion, the new facility will simply mean more opportunities to help children achieve a brighter future.
“We need it to make sure that our organization survives and thrives for another 60 years,” he said.
Editor's Note: Tony Barsamian is the publisher of The Queens Gazette and Walter Sanchez publishes the LIC/Astoria Journal. This article appeared in both newspapers.