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Broadway Youth Center: Supporters 'Hopeful,' Opposers Feeling 'Not Good'

By Serena Dai | January 17, 2014 8:22am
 The Zoning Board of Appeals voted Friday on whether the Broadway Youth Center can operate in a church on Wellington Avenue, but it won't announce the vote result until Tuesday.
Broadway Youth Center vote
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CITY HALL — Broadway Youth Center's future on Wellington looked promising Friday as a Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) voiced support and a city board appeared critical of those opposing the center's location.

The city's Zoning Board of Appeals heard testimony from the Howard Brown Health Center, the city and residents Friday morning in City Hall, where the packed audience was filled mostly with supporters of the social and health services agency that often serves homeless youth.

The board will reveal its vote Tuesday on whether the Broadway Youth Center can operate as a community center at the Wellington United Church of Christ, 615 W. Wellington Ave., a contentious issue that's driven passionate supporters and critics of the center's location to a series of heated meetings.

Tunney officially voiced support Thursday night under the condition that there's a "good neighbor agreement" and a one-year trial period for the center's stay at the church. The permit also must be nontransferrable to other agencies, he said.

South East Lake View Neighbors rejected the good neighbor agreement, saying that it did not include enough enforceability, but Howard Brown has agreed to the conditions.

"I think the impact, based on the number of visitors, is not as dramatic as some of the neighbors would feel," Tunney said.

Many residents and members of South East Lake View Neighbors opposed the location, with the group overwhelmingly voting against it at a meeting on Monday. Several people testified that the center attracts loitering, and that medical procedures performed at the center should not take place on a residential street.

But Zoning Board of Appeals member Sam Toia was borderline sarcastic as he queried some of the neighbors about their complaints, such as opposition to the use of the church for medical purposes.

"Correct me if I'm wrong, isn't Illinois Masonic a few blocks away?" Toia said. "I want him [the board chairman Jonathan Swain] to understand that Illinois Masonic is two blocks away on Wellington."

The audience, about 95 percent filled with supporters, laughed.

Swain also questioned whether the people who residents said they saw smoking weed in the neighborhood actually came from the center. No neighbors said they had seen troublemakers specifically walk out of the center.

But resident Anne Voshel said that a group of young people whom she caught smoking weed on her porch were transgender and that she'd never seen such activities on the street before.

"I will tell you it is a very different behavior in our neighborhood than existed before this organization came to Wellington Avenue," Voshel said. "This has never occurred."

Supporters from across the city arrived to support Broadway Youth Center, many wearing bright orange T-shirts provided by activist group ONE Northside. Some 1,100 letters of support also were sent to the city as part of the permit process, said Michelle Wetzel, general counsel of Howard Brown Health Center.

Wetzel left the meeting feeling "very hopeful" that the center would be able to operate in the church, she said. The center is entering the good neighbor agreement "in good faith," she said.

"Despite their withdrawal, we want to work with them," Wetzel said.

Very few of the center's supporters actually live on the street, according to the South East Lake View group's vice president John Rafkin. Rafkin, who testified on behalf of the neighborhood group, left the meeting feeling "not good" about what the board would decide, he said,

"I'm afraid they'll be swayed by the political winds rather than exact zoning laws," Rafkin said. "I'm concerned this turned into a political issue. We support the Broadway Youth Center, just not in this location."

Swain said he does "empathize" with Voshel spotting pot smokers on her stoop and wanted to talk more with Howard Brown on the specifics of patrolling the neighborhood, such as whether patrols should be more frequent.

If the board approves the special-use permit, the center would have to reapply about a year from now. At that point, the community will have more proof if there is trouble coming out of the center, Tunney said.

"This is an important resource for the city and for the community," Tunney said. "Lakeview has been historically the epicenter for LGBT youth. I think it's appropriate that it stays."