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To Expand or Not To Expand?

Neighbors speak out at public hearing on proposed expansion of McLean Community Center.

Dr. Quita La Salle has some complaints about the recent McLean Community Center survey regarding the potential expansion of the community center facilities. Last week she voiced those complaints at a public hearing on the matter.

"It's a fatally flawed survey," said La Salle at the start of the hearing. "It's made up of biased and leading questions, and my proposal is that you have to stop this whole process because it's based on fatally flawed information."

For the past several months, the McLean Community Center Governing Board has conducted research to determine what — if any — expansion should be done at the center, and at its satellite Teen Center located in the Old Firehouse building in downtown McLean. After reviewing the results of an extensive community survey last month, the Governing Board came up with a preliminary expansion proposal that was presented to local residents at a public hearing on Wednesday, March 14.

Approximately 50 local residents attended last week's hearing, most of whom live in close proximity to the center. Many of the residents expressed annoyance about the fact that the community survey did touch on the option of no expansion.

"Not one question asked 'would you like to leave the center as it is, lower your tax rate and renovate the existing building,'" said Cheryl Patten, a neighbor of the center who lives on Ingleside Avenue.

Dr. John Rudzki, another nearby neighbor of the center, shared the same sentiment.

"I find this survey to be suspect because it didn't ask 'would you like to decrease your taxes,'" said Rudzki.

The McLean Community Center currently receives funding from the tax payments of residents in Special Tax District #5.

THE MCLEAN COMMUNITY CENTER Governing Board voted to approve the preliminary renovation proposal on Feb. 28, and Governing Board member Jan Auerbach said that the board's goal is to get a community consensus on the matter in time for a board vote at its final meeting in May.

"We're very early on this," said Auerbach. "Exactly where things would go we're not sure yet, so we have a lot of flexibility on that."

Based on community input gleaned from the survey, Auerbach said that several things stood out to the board as factors of particular importance to local residents.

"The support was overwhelming to leave the Teen Center where it is," said Auerbach.

In the summer of 2005, discussion of relocating the Teen Center to the main community center facility raised criticism from residents who felt that it would decrease the Teen Center's appeal to local youth, and bring more traffic to the neighborhoods surrounding the community center. Given the enormous amount of opposition to such a move, the Governing Board renovation proposal calls for the Teen Center to remain at its current Old Firehouse location. However, one third of the space would be set aside as a multi-use space.

This multi-use space would house extra dance studios for dance lessons and fitness classes, and a 100-seat "Black Box" theater to provide a space for small, emerging theater groups and children's shows.

"The 100-seat Black Box theater is probably the most exciting of the potential planned additions," said Auerbach.

This option would require an underground parking garage for the Teen Center, a feature with a very prohibitive costs.

"This board is committed to not approving any option that would raise taxes," said Auerbach. "It is for this reason that this option may be too expensive, and that is why we came up with a second option."

THE SECOND OPTION — which was by far the least popular with neighbors of the center — calls for the renovation of the Old Firehouse to include a multi-use space for a fitness studio, and the addition of a 100-seat Black Box theater and dance studio space to the existing McLean Community Center building. Ingleside Avenue resident Samir Fakhry said that if such an option were to be approved, he would be concerned about the personal safety of his children.

"I live across the street ... so I would like to know what the community center has done to investigate the safety of the community," said Fakhry. "We already have so much traffic ... and I've already had several near-death experiences getting my mail and walking my dog."

Neighbors of the community center are also frustrated by the fact that Dolley Madison Library is about to commence its own renovation and expansion project. Since the library is adjacent to the McLean Community Center, residents fear that the combined expansions would lead to extensive congestion in their neighborhood. When this concern was raised at Thursday's public hearing, Jan Auerbach said that the Governing Board was aware of the library's renovation plans.

"We know what they're doing but there's nothing that says we can't do both at the same time," said Auerbach.

Local resident Pat McGovern said that she would like to see the local government arrange a traffic study of the whole area.

"We need some kind of comprehensive traffic study beyond this facility even," said McGovern.

ALTHOUGH there was substantial criticism of any plans to increase the footprint of the existing center, many of those attending the public hearing said that they did like the idea of keeping the Teen Center downtown and making it a multi-use facility.

"I really like that there is proposed day-time use for the Teen Center," said resident and McLean Citizens Association (MCA) member Merrily Pierce.

Cooper Middle School student Peter DaBaldo, 13, was the only teenager present at the public hearing, but he said he also liked the idea of keeping the Teen Center where it is.

"And I think it's a good idea for the Black Box theater to be in the Teen Center because it will allow more teens to come and hang out, and I also think it would be good to have coffee there sometimes," said DaBaldo.

DaBaldo said he enjoyed coming to the meeting because it was a very educational experience.

"It was good — I learned a lot about the community," he said.