A rendering of the police training facility in development. Credit: Provided

AUSTIN — A controversial police training campus on the West Side will also be the home of a new Boys & Girls Club after the plan was approved by City Council Wednesday.

The $8 million youth development center in the 4400 block of West Chicago Avenue would be the first new Boys & Girls Club built in decades. The West Side has been in dire need of better opportunities for young people, said Ald. Emma Mitts (37th). Building a youth center has been a priority for Mitts since she was first elected in 2000.

“Somebody has to look out for the kids. And it is our responsibility, everybody to look out for each other’s children,” Mitts said.

Young people are in need of safe spaces, Mitts said. There were two mass shootings in Austin in the last week. In one shooting Saturday, a 12-year-old and three teenagers were shot.

“Those young people who were out celebrating Saturday where five of them were shot in my ward, they could have been at that Boys & Girls Club,” Mitts said.

The club would have sports, recreation, academic assistance, wellness training and leadership development programs on the same site as the $95 million Joint Public Safety Training Academy under development.

The city will lease about half an acre of land on the training academy’s campus to the Boys & Girls Club for $1 annually for at least 55 years.

“We are convinced this new club represents a transformational opportunity for young people in Chicago to promote healing and build bridges where few currently exist,” Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago President and CEO Mimi LeClair said.

The youth club is expected to help amplify the benefits of other investments along the corridor, including the redevelopment of the Laramie State Bank Building, “to create a more walkable and urban Chicago Avenue,” said Gerardo Garcia, a deputy commissioner of the city’s planning department.

The campus will also include two Black-owned restaurants, a Culvers and a Peach’s. Ald. Michael Scott (24th) commended the plan for allowing the campus to be “not just a safety academy. But it’s an amenity for the West Side,” he said.

While residents and local leaders praised the recreation opportunities and after-school programs, many balked at the idea of having a youth center next door to a police training facility. Many young people and residents fought to block the training center when it was proposed in 2017.

Youth organizers for the #NoCopAcademy campaign criticized the training facility as a misuse of public funds, saying it added to an overinflated police budget while neglecting schools, mental health centers and other social services that address the root causes of crime.

Organizers launched a petition signed by more than 500 people asking for the Boys & Girls Club to to choose a different West Side location for the project. In an open letter to LeClair, #NoCopAcademy organizers said, “Black and Brown youth are being used as props” in a “PR strategy to ease those rising tensions between the general public and police.”

“They just want to make it sound good. And this is the ultimate talking point,” said Kaleb Autman, an organizer for #NoCopAcademy.

Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) praised the Boys & Girls Club for investing on the West Side and ultimately voted in favor of the project, but questioned in a committee meeting whether young people at the center would be negatively impacted by the police presence.

“I also know … from the experience of some of our youth that sometimes our officers… they may not view young Black and Brown Chicagoans the way they deserve. There are times where… our young people of color are viewed as threats when they’re not doing anything wrong, they’re just living their lives,” La Spata said.

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