Variety expansion draws mixed reaction at hearing
by Benjamin Fang
May 30, 2018 | 771 views | 0 0 comments | 27 27 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Bishop Mitchell Taylor address the committee and attendees.
Bishop Mitchell Taylor address the committee and attendees.
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The plan to expand the Variety Boys and Girls Club of Queens received a largely warm reception last Thursday, but also fielded some criticism and concern of overdevelopment.

At a Community Board 1 public hearing at the Ravenswood Community Center, students, parents and club partners spoke highly of Variety’s after-school and youth programs. The club serves nearly 150 children daily, but hundreds more are stuck on a waiting list.

The growing needs of the booming Astoria and Long Island City populations led the board of directions to push for a new, state-of-the-art, five-story facility.

“Right now, there’s not enough room,” said board president Walter Sanchez. “Our programs are so successful they’re bursting at the seams.”

The new facility, which would still be located at 21-12 30th Road, would have new art and technology labs, athletic facilities, planetarium and community theater. It would host universal pre-kindergarten seats, child care slots, conference space and other programming uses.

Variety also plans to partner with a developer to build a 14-story, 112-unit residential building on the adjacent lot. The mixed-use building would have retail on the first floor, which the club plans to use to enhance its entrepreneurial program.

Richard Bass, an attorney with the firm Akerman LLP, which is working with Variety on the proposal, said they are in the process of selecting a developer, but are seeking a rezoning first.

According to Bass, Variety will likely lease the land to the developer and use the funds from that agreement to help finance the new club facility.

“We’ve always believed that since the Boys and Girls Club is a nonprofit, we want to hold onto the land,” said land use consultant Steve Sinacori. “But we can do a ground lease and still bring in the resources to develop the new Boys and Girls Club.”

When asked by the Community Board 1 committee why they didn’t choose to work with a nonprofit developer or construct a smaller building, Variety’s team said both options would result in not having enough resources or funds to expand the facility.

Bishop Mitchell Taylor, CEO and co-founder of Urban Upbound, spoke in favor of the project. He succinctly summarized Variety’s dilemma and why they chose to go this route.

“They are land rich and money poor,” he said. “When you’re land rich and money poor, you have to leverage the land in order to build what you envision to be a further blessing to the kids you serve.”

However, not every resident or community leader was on board with the plan. Claudia Coger, president of the tenants association at Astoria Houses, said most public housing residents now cannot afford to pay for the summer program at Variety, which is $1,000 for eight weeks.

She also raised the concern that allowing this residential project would “open the window” for other 14-story developments to be built in the area.

Matthew Troy, executive director of the Variety Boys and Girls Club, responded that the summer camp is fee-based because it has no other source of funding. But he said he envisions the fees for current programming, including the free after-school program, to be “as similar or less than” what they are now.

“We believe with this redevelopment, that will give us the resources to be able to reduce the fees or eliminate them,” Troy said.

April Simpson, president of the Queensbridge Houses tenants association, also feared that a development like this could lead to displacement of local residents.

“There are residents of Queensbridge who can barely pay their rent right now,” she said. “We’ll be pushed out of public housing. Where are we going to go?”

CB1 members also raised questions about what would happen to the students and seniors living nearby during construction.

Sanchez answered that the students will use three temporary sites: one on the first floor of the senior residence next door, which they own, and partnering sites at IS 10 in Astoria and the Academy of the City Charter School in Woodside.

Bass, meanwhile, noted that the senior residence is not directly connected to the club. When they select a developer and create a construction plan, the Variety team will get back to the board, he said.

The discussion will continue at Community Board 1’s full board meeting on Tuesday, June 19, at 6:30 p.m. It will be at Astoria World Manor at 25-22 Astoria Boulevard.

Editor’s Note: Walter Sanchez is the publisher of the this newspaper.
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