Some residents living near the site of the proposed indoor recreation center on Vanderbilt Avenue say the current fields are a great spot for their kids.
But Mayor Scott Johnson says it’s an underused field that would offer more as an indoor center for basketball, walking and rock climbing.
Johnson has recommended since January, shortly after he took office, that the South Side Recreation Field be developed as an indoor recreation center. He said the site, near the city’s public housing units, would be better for a recreation center than Weibel Avenue, where children would almost certainly have to catch a ride with an adult to use.
The previous City Council had planned to put the $6.5 million center on Weibel Avenue near the city’s ice rinks and already borrowed the money.
Since Johnson proposed changing the site, he said he got only positive comments from residents who said the site in the heart of the city made more sense.
But after he gave a presentation on the recreation proposal at a town meeting last week, a throng of residents questioned putting the recreation center in their backyards, where they say the parking lot would attract people going to Saratoga Race Course in the summer and that the building would take away play space for the neighborhood youth.
But Johnson said South Side Recreation Field is used less than the fields on the north, east and west sides of the city.
“We’ve examined it, and all that occurs there is random unstructured play,” Johnson said. He doubts people will park there to go to the track.
That play is important, residents argued. Chato Roque, 16, of Jefferson Terrace, said he plays basketball in the park about once a week and believes some of the teens who play there would get in trouble if they didn’t have that outlet.
Jeff Olson’s children also use the park. “They play there a lot,” he said, noting that the park offers the only playing fields south of Union Avenue.
Tuesday evening’s City Council meeting was packed with more than 50 people, many of whom attended from the south side neighborhood.
Before the meeting, Ray Giguere of Lincoln Avenue said he was concerned that the city plans to construct a metal shed-type building, which he said wouldn’t conform to the residential and historic neighborhood that is also a stone’s throw from Greenridge Cemetery.
“It’s a great place to live. It’s a mixed neighborhood,” Giguere said.
But Johnson said the metal shed that was proposed for Weibel Avenue isn’t being considered at the south side park.
“We are not doing that, because of the concern of the surrounding neighborhood, and we want this to be attractive to the neighborhood.”
Giguere also was worried that the city will charge to use the facility, making it tough for children who live in the public housing units to go there. Johnson said no one has proposed making the facility fee-for-use.
As proposed at 42,000 square feet, the center would be slightly smaller than what was proposed at Weibel Avenue but provide a wider variety of recreation, from an indoor walking track, four basketball courts, a racquetball court, rock climbing wall, locker rooms, community rooms for meetings and a new outdoor playground area.
A second exit to the park is proposed on Tremont Street, a very short street that dead-ends at the field. Johnson said plans include tree buffers between the parking lot and adjacent homes.
Residents also worry that the big building in the small park will feel claustrophobic.
“This is clearly trying to shoehorn a building that is way too big for the space,” said Bob Bullock, who lives on Lincoln Avenue.
Plans for the project are currently being drawn up, and Johnson expects to make them public by the beginning of June, after which the city will hold public hearings before sending the project out to bid.
The city has conducted soil testing at the South Side Recreation Field and the mayor said he hopes to have the results back soon.
Johnson said he plans to bring the recreation center to a vote at the City Council even if he isn't required to. “I think it's best that the City Council be in agreement, and I think I do have the support of the council.”
If all goes well, he hopes to break ground on the facility this fall and finish it before school lets out for the summer next year.