*Editor’s Note: Mike Brownlee is a member of the Council Bluffs YMCA advisory board.
The Council Bluffs Planning Commission has voted to deny a rezoning request from the YMCA as the organization looks to remove the old St. Patrick’s Church, vacate Baughn Street and install a green space and parking area.
The commission voted 6 to 4 in favor of a motion to deny the request during its meeting Tuesday night. The Council Bluffs City Council will now have the option to consider the issue.
The vote was welcomed by those in opposition to the demolition of old St. Patrick’s Church, while YMCA leadership expressed disappointment.
The YMCA of Greater Omaha has requested the city rezone the land west of the Charles E. Lakin YMCA at 235 Harmony St. from from residential to commercial, while also vacating and disposing of Baughn Street, which connects Harmony Street and Kanesville Boulevard. The city would retain an easement for utility maintenance on the Baughn Street land, according to Council Bluffs Planning and Zoning.
“We’re a little disappointed,” said YMCA of Greater Omaha President and CEO Chris Tointon. “We’re really looking forward to telling our story and letting the city council know what the community needs are, and how this can help the city create better recreational sources, reduce blight and engage the community.”
The YMCA’s plan for the area includes a westward extension of its existing parking lot, along with the installation of an outdoor pavilion, sports court with basketball hoops, terraced seating using a natural slope and a walking path. The work would include the removal of the old St. Patrick’s Church building, the church rectory (church housing) and a house on the land.
Tointon said initial plans kept Baughn Street in tact, but, “the more we heard from (community and civic leaders), it would create a safety hazard and already does create a safety hazard.”
The YMCA owns the land after purchasing it from St. Patrick’s, which moved to a new location on Valley View Drive. Tointon said the Y spent more than a year trying to find adaptive uses for the old St. Patrick’s building. He said the systems in the building were “long past” their useful life, while noting the need for “considerable environmental remediation.”
“When you add those up, those properties are just better off with the proposal we’ve come to,” Tointon said.
Among the voices in opposition to the plan was that of The 712 Initiative CEO Sheryl Garst.
“I went in there not expecting changes, but was pleasantly surprised that the commission agreed with the assessments and saw an opportunity for a better plan to address both the YMCA needs and the neighborhood needs, while not taking out an architectural asset for the community,” Garst told the Nonpareil.
Garst said The 712 Initiative attempted to approach the Y with an alternate plan that would’ve provided for parking and green space, while also saving the St. Patrick’s buildings and reducing the traffic flow in the Harmony Street neighborhood. The plan included 712 Initiative assistance on the creation of a one-story parking ramp.
Garst said the YMCA of Greater Omaha’s board declined to have her and Tom Hanafan come in with the proposal (The Council Bluffs Y board serves in an advisory capacity).
“I’m a YMCA member, I truly believe in their mission,” Garst said, stressing her support for the organization multiple times while discussing The 712 Initiative’s proposed “Plan B.”
“But I respectfully disagree with their current plan,” Garst said.
Tointon said the Y reviewed a number of plans from the community. The organization came into its planning process with three overarching goals:
- Create an outdoor recreation space available to the neighborhood that could also be utilized for camps and programming.
“The closest neighborhood park to the YMCA is far beyond walking distance,” Tointon said. “Having access for the neighborhood and for the Y was No. 1 in our mind.”
- Reduce on-street parking by YMCA users.
- Create a safe and cohesive campus.
“Every project we looked at related to this site met those objectives, the plan we’ve come up with highlights all three of those,” he said. “It provides a pretty great outdoor recreation space in the middle of an urban environment.”
Tointon said the Y offered a variety of parties the chance to give their proposals for the property, with the requirement it met all three goals.
“We didn’t receive any proposals that met those three goals,” he said. “Without at least making it through that understanding, we weren’t able to advance any of those. I don’t want to speak to every proposal. It’s not fair to us to take every proposal and dice it up for why or why we didn’t.”
Garst said The 712 Initiative was in touch with a private developer interested in converting the church into apartments, with 712 providing some assistance on covering the cost. The developer was willing to share parking spaces with the Y for overflow parking, Garst said.
“It would’ve expanded the economic tax base, addressed the city’s need for housing, preserved an architectural structure, doubled parking spots and increased play area. Our plan would have been less invasive of traffic flow for neighborhood,” Garst said. “There was another option for this.”
Garst pointed out that the Y has an agreement for overflow parking with CHI Health Mercy Hospital. Tointon said hospital parking is available for staff during workdays and to Y users after 5 p.m. and on weekends.
“The current plan is to go out rather than up. I think they’ll outgrow it too soon, and it’ll have trickle effect of other issues for the neighborhood and the facility,” Garst said.
“It’s a missed opportunity to put an architectural building back on the tax rolls for a good re-use project,” she said.
Tointon said, “there are a lot of ideas. But what’s the best use for that property?”
“We think if you take a look at the concept plan, it can be an amazing space. Pickleball, pickup basketball, maybe outdoor 3-on-3 (basketball) leagues, kickball, spaces for kids to climb and run and play,” he said.
Tointon said the Y worked with St. Patrick’s officials throughout the planning process and have expressed their blessing. A church official directed questions to Matt Gronstal, a member of the church’s finance council. A message left with Gronstal wasn’t immediately returned.
“We looked at this for a couple of years. We tried really hard. We wanted to try to find a way to incorporate (St. Patrick’s) and couldn’t find a solution for that,” Tointon said.
As for next steps: it’s likely the City Council will vote at its Nov. 23 meeting on whether to hold a public meeting on the rezoning request at its Dec. 14 meeting.
On Thursday, Councilmen Joe Disalvo, Roger Sandau and Mike Wolf said they were in the learning stages regarding the rezoning proposal.
Councilman Chad Hannan said he does not support a plan that would see the building demolished.
“We have a terrible history of tearing down our historic properties. The change starts with us. We have to be better than that,” Hannan said. “That building has to be preserved. It takes money and vision. But we need to keep this property. I don’t want to see another historic building torn down to build a parking lot.”
Councilwoman Melissa Head, who also serves on the Council Bluffs Y board, noted the organization had looked at alternative options.
“My hope would be we do go forward with it. The plan the Y has is a benefit to the community,” she said, noting that the zoning issue and St. Patrick’s issue has become intertwined when it shouldn’t be. “The church is getting torn down regarding of the rezoning. They looked at a way to preserve it, but unfortunately it didn’t work out.”
Head noted she wasn’t positive she’d be able to vote on the issue and would have to doublecheck with the city attorney’s office. She said normally council members recuse themselves if there’s a financial interest, which wouldn’t be the care on this vote.