AUSTIN — A parcel of vacant lots on the West Side will be transformed into a community center with sports and recreation programs for young people.
The $2 million sale of the city-owned vacant land for the development of the North Austin Community Center was unanimously approved at a Sept. 9 City Council meeting.
The project has been in development since 2017 as a partnership between Grace and Peace Church and By the Hand Club for Kids. Their plans hit a snag last year during a dispute with the city over the land where the center will be built.
But the city agreed to the proposal after an outpouring of support from residents in favor of the community center.
“The community really embraced the project. It fit the needs of folks in the community,” said John Zayas, a leader of Grace and Peace Church.
The community campus at 1815 N. Laramie Ave. will have extensive programming aimed at young people, especially those 16-25 years old, to find a “sense of direction and purpose,” Zayas said.
“Grace and Peace will come as a wraparound support with anything that families might need,” he said.
The campus will have soccer fields, basketball courts, CrossFit stations and lacrosse programming. It will also have a walking track, a fitness center, a playground and an outdoor workout area. Construction will begin in late fall, and it is expected to be completed during the 2021 school year.
The church is partnering with Young Life so young people at the center will have access to camping and outdoor education programs. Many residents have had limited opportunities to explore beyond their neighborhoods, so Zayas said the center will give “experiences to young people outside of the city limits.”
By the Hand will develop after-school programming at the 140,000-square-foot center, which will include academic assistance and mentorship for students in elementary and high school. The after-school programs will serve about 400 people. Combined with fitness activities, the center will serve about 1,000 kids daily, said Andraya Yousfi, of By the Hand.
“Our kids need positive and productive things to do with their time,” Yousfi said.
The center is also expected to improve public safety and benefit businesses by drawing more visitors to the area, Yousfi said.
The project is modeled after the Pullman Community Center. Pullman saw significant decreases in crime, increases in home values and a boost to local business after the center opened, Yousfi said.
“It’s going to be really large. There’s nothing really like this in the area. It’s going to be an exciting meeting place,” Yousfi said. “It’s bringing people from all over to experience what the West Side has to offer.”
The area where the center will be built bridges the predominantly Black community in Austin with a large Latino population in Belmont Cragin. The center will bring together young people from each neighborhood to build solidarity between the communities, Zayas said.
“To really bring Brown and Black communities together, especially in difficult times like this, it’s a major plus,” Zayas said.
Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) threw her support behind the center after residents made it clear they wanted more opportunities for youth. She envisioned a community center like this in North Austin when she joined City Council 20 years ago, she said.
“It’s been a long time coming,” she said. “I’m glad I did not give up on that fight.”
The community center will be a “safe haven” for young people from Austin and beyond, Mitts said. “We welcome each and every race to be a participant in our community,” she said.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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