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November 04, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, November 04, 2005

Site change for child care? Site change for child care? (November 04, 2005)

City may reconsider using Rengstorff Park location

By Jon Wiener

Growing opposition to plans to locate a child care center in Rengstorff Park appears to have forced the city to consider moving the project to another site.

City manager Kevin Duggan and Mayor Matt Neely met twice in the past week to discuss options for reopening the project to public comment, including the possibility of reopening the discussion of the center's location via a city council study session.

Earlier this week, city staff scheduled a Nov. 9 meeting to hear residents' concerns about the location and shape of the project.

"For a lot of the people that live there, this is their backyard," said Camille Marder, president of the homeowners association Parkview West Apartments, a 180-unit complex that borders the planned site for the center.

When residents of Parkview West first started appearing at city council meetings in September, wearing small placards reading "Save Rengstorff Park," sentiment among council members seemed to be that their protests were too little, too late.

The official public comment period on the project had ended in mid-June, when the council voted 5-2 to give the project what many thought was a final go-ahead. Not a single resident of Parkview West attended the meeting, which left council member Greg Perry and council gadfly Don Letcher as the only ones to speak out about the impact on the park.

"We just assume that the neighbors around any project have heard about the meeting, because in general the notices go out," said Perry.

But the neighbors apparently did not know about the project, despite heavy media coverage, including three consecutive front-page articles in the Voice in June as the council was voting on a budget bill.

"We're kind of surprised that anybody is surprised," said city manager Duggan.
Change in plans went unnoticed

The city sent out 1,800 notices about the original project, according to assistant city manager Nadine Levin. But that was more than three years ago, when plans for the child care center still called for its inclusion in the construction of a new senior center.

When the city did send out notices before a July 2002 meeting, three Parkview West residents attended. But after changing its plans -- moving the project out of the senior center and onto three quarters of an acre of Rengstorff parkland -- the city failed to send out any additional notices or post information in the affected section of the park.

As a result, those who came to public meetings to speak about the child care center were generally there to talk about the need for child care, rather than the specifics of the project. At one meeting, council members heard a tearful plea from a mother who said she could not afford child care for her daughter. At another, children's health collaborative Healthy Ventures organized 20 people to come support the project. The only opposition from the public came from operators of smaller centers who feared the city's agreement with Children's Creative Learning Centers would put them out of business.

Residents of the Rengstorff neighborhood, many of whom do not speak English and stay out of city politics, were by and large nowhere to be seen. Even now, as residents of Parkview West mobilize, those speaking up about the project do not appear to include any representatives of the large Latino population in the area.

The Rengstorff neighborhood is among the city's poorest, and (Parkview West notwithstanding) has a large population of recent immigrants. According to the city's master plan for parks and open space, adopted in 2001, the neighborhood's 0.13 acres of park space per thousand people ranks dead last in the city. Help for the poor?

Proponents say this is precisely reason it is important to have the center in Rengstorff Park. But it is unclear how much the surrounding neighborhood will benefit from the project. Cost estimates for the 104 available slots run from $500 and $1,000 a month - numbers that could change with market conditions and according to the age and needs of the child. The operator has pledged to keep 30 slots available to parents receiving state and federal assistance.

In voting against funding the project in June, Perry pointed to the cost of those slots as well as the impact of the building and its access road on the park.

"I really fear what this project is about is taking away an acre of parkland in the poor area of town to provide child care to the middle class area of town, and I have an immense justice problem with that," Perry said.

Perry's colleagues dismissed the criticism -- supporters say the reason they want the center in Rengstorff Park is precisely because it is a low-income area -- but a growing chorus of neighbors and even the city's own parks and recreation commission have been echoing it in recent weeks.

Frances Trimmer, an elderly resident of Parkview West who calls the area "the very prettiest part of the park," helped generate the recent groundswell against the project's location by doing what the city did not: posting signs around the park and the complex.

"I walk through there every day," said Trimmer. "I go to the senior center every morning at 8:30, there are people in the gazebo there doing tai chi and exercises. They sit and they have their lunches."

Perry suggested the city-owned parking lot behind the Tied House as a possible alternative location. The city is planning to sell that lot to an affordable housing developer, but will have to lease another lot a few blocks way until the second downtown parking garage is complete.

Last week, the city's parks and recreation commission recommended the council make up for a loss of Rengstorff's space by buying additional land to add back to the park.
Some want to move on

The debate over the child care center has lasted for eight years. Now, with the city on the brink of signing a contract with the operator and finalizing a 1 percent loan with the Packard Foundation, some council members are nervous about the costs of any further delays.

"If we revisited everything after the fact, government would come to a standstill," said council member Mike Kasperzak.

"The request to reconsider is a huge undertaking," agreed Vice Mayor Nick Galiotto. "I would have to be overwhelmingly convinced that there wasn't adequate notice given. I don't see that right now."

E-mail Jon Wiener at jwiener@mv-voice.com


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