Community Board 1 gave the green light to the Variety Boys and Girls Club’s expansion plan on Tuesday, but added several conditions to address local concerns.
In a 29 to eight vote, with one abstention, the board approved the proposal to build a new five-story community facility at 21-12 30th Road, along with a 14-story, 112-unit residential building with retail on the first floor.
But Variety would have to meet several conditions. First, the board wants Variety to agree to designate 30 percent of its units as affordable, with the average income range set for 60 percent of the area median income (AMI). Second, the developer would have to distribute the affordable units equitably throughout the building, and help subsidize the amenities for the affordable units.
CB1 also called for the applicant to use materials that will “lessen the visual intensity of the height” of the 14-story building.” Finally, the board asked Variety to commit to continuing programs without fees, and to increase scholarships for programs with fees.
CB1 member Thomas Ryan also asked to make the 14-story building more environmentally friendly and aim to be energy-neutral, a stipulation that was approved as well.
Walter Sanchez, president of the board at Variety, said after the meeting that he was thrilled with the community board’s overwhelming support.
“Our goal as a club, since its founding in 1955, is to be an opportunity of learning and fun after-school for any child who walks in the door,” Sanchez said. “Being able to use the proceeds from a residential building to build a state-of-the-art club for the community is a win-win all around. I am glad the community board members saw that.”
Variety executive director Matthew Troy said the new facility is needed to accommodate the growth of the Astoria and Long Island City communities. Last year alone, 1,700 children registered for the club’s programs.
“What I think makes us special is that we really do serve every corner of the community,” he said. “Our community center, which is essentially what the Variety Boys and Girls Club is, is open to everyone. That’s the message I want to get across.”
The club can fit about 220 students any point during the day, according to Richard Bass, an attorney with Akerman LLP, who is representing the Boys and Girls Club. The new five-story facility would fit approximately 500 kids at any given time.
Troy said there were 642 children on their waiting list last year because the club didn’t have the capacity to take them in.
“That really breaks my heart,” he said. “I want us to be open for everyone, that is our mission. We absolutely need more space, and this is our opportunity.”
The funding provided by the residential building will not only help build the new facility, but also increase the club’s operating budget for programming. According to Troy, 85 percent of families attend the after-school program for free, while 60 percent go to summer camp for free.
The more grants, donation and funding the club receives, the lower the fees will be, the executive director said.
Troy also spoke about the improved quality of the programs offered, especially in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. The club boasts a MakerSpace run by local tech entrepreneurs, a NASA-funded robotics program, a digital design program in partnership with Skanska, a BioBus biology program that allows kids to use microscopes and even JetBlue science hubs.
The new facility will have more technology and science labs, a teaching kitchen, basketball and swimming facilities, and a planetarium. The space will also house 80 Universal Pre-Kindergarten seats, 50 spots for child care, a 175-community theater and a 250-seat conference space.
“What we offer now is the best possible experiences for kids in this community, to make sure they have that advantage in life,” Troy said. “These are the opportunities that are going to set the children apart.”
Sanchez said one of the most important features of the new club will be its nonprofit incubator. The club envisions having a shared workspace and office environment for nonprofits that serve children in the community, he said.
“During our stakeholders planning meetings, before the amenities of the new building were determined, a number of community members thought there was a disconnect, and that there needed to be more integration and communication among organizations that serve youth in the LIC and Astoria area,” he said. “That’s when we saw the proliferation of shared workspace offices throughout Queens and New York, and saw how that model could work for nonprofits.”
Sanchez said he’s already had conversations about giving shared workspace to local groups in the community such as Sports and Arts in Schools Foundation (SASF), the Boy Scouts, Virtual Enterprises, Zone 126 and Upward Bound.
“How great would it be if these organizations collaborated to serve the children of the area?” Sanchez said.
Community board members brought up myriad concerns about the project, particularly the 14-story residential building, street safety and the strain on local infrastructure.
Board member Evie Hantzopoulos asked why Variety didn’t consider partnering with a nonprofit developer, who would share the same community goals as the club. Bass said creating only affordable housing on the site would not generate enough funds to build new club facility.
“There are concerns about the tradeoffs here,” Hantzopoulos said.
Elizabeth Erion, who co-chairs the board’s Land Use and Zoning Committee, also questioned the rationale to seek a R7X zone. Bass said the increased density would give more money for Variety’s expansion.
The project now goes to the borough president’s office for a hearing and a recommendation, followed by the Department of City Planning for review.
The City Council will then have “last licks,” said Councilman Costa Constantinides, who spoke about the proposal earlier in the meeting.
“I look forward to partnering with the board and partnering with Variety Boys and Girls Club to make sure we get a good project there,” he said. “I think we will, because we always find a way to work together as one community for the betterment of our neighborhood.”
Editor's Note: Walter Sanchez is the publisher of this newspaper.