By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Bennett Valley residents critical of a plan to turn the former Warrack Hospital campus into housing for homeless young people decried as one-sided a Wednesday community meeting on the project hosted by city planning staff.
Many residents were frustrated that officials from Social Advocates for Youth were allowed to give a presentation about their plans for what they are calling the Dream Center, while neighbors with concerns about the project were not allowed the same opportunity to speak.
“You’re silencing us as a group!” Connie VanGross yelled at city planner Noah Housh.
Housh explained at the beginning of the 6 p.m. meeting at Strawberry Elementary School that the forum was informational only, allowing the city to outline its application process for the project and SAY officials to describe the proposal.
He made clear that residents can send their written comments to city staff at any time and they will have the opportunity to give testimony at two future public hearings, before the Planning Commission and the City Council.
“We’re essentially at the beginning of the process,” Housh said.
City planners and SAY representatives were on hand at four separate stations to answer questions from the hundreds of people gathered at the standing-room-only meeting, many of them wearing yellow shirts reading “Say Yes to Dreams.”
But that format of giving SAY officials a microphone and opportunity to explain the project without giving critics, many of them from a group called Community Unite, a comparable opportunity struck some as unfair.
“I feel like we’re being shunted to four corners,” said Brenda Chatelain who labeled the event as a “city-sponsored press conference for SAY.”
Many residents crowded around Housh after the presentations, some angrily pointing fingers at him and accusing the city of bias in favor of the project. Several police officers were on hand for security, and Chief Tom Schwedhelm was there to answer questions.
An irate Michel Stamos dismissed the entire meeting as “corrupted” and “one-sided” and little more than a “SAY PR stunt”
“This is a waste of time,” Stamos vented.
The anger was just the latest flare-up over what has become one of the most controversial and emotionally charged development projects in recent city history.
SAY plans to turn the former hospital into 63 beds of transitional housing for young adults between 18 and 24 who are leaving foster care or are homeless.
The former hospital rooms would be turned into 51 units of long-term housing, where residents would pay rent and stay for up to two years, and 12 short-term, or emergency, housing units, where young people could live rent-free for 90 days while they get on their feet.
A variety of other educational and support programs would be offered at the site either by SAY or partners. Sutter Medical Center is offering the roughly 52,000-square-foot campus to SAY for free.
Neighbors have raised a host of concerns about the plan. They’ve expressed fear that gang members or others with criminal records would be housed in their peaceful community. They’ve called the center too large for the site and for an organization like SAY to handle. And they want a more thorough environmental review of the project.
SAY Executive Director Matt Martin spent nearly as much time describing what the project isn’t as what it is. He said the center will not be a halfway house, homeless shelter, drug treatment center, soup kitchen, walk-in emergency center or tattoo-removal center.
“It is wrong to compare the Dream Center to an institutional facility for delinquent youth,” Martin said. “Homeless does not equal criminal. Poor does not equal criminal. Our young people who come from foster care were not in foster care because they did something wrong.”
Many were abused or neglected. He called them victims, not victimizers, who are deserving of the community’s support.
He said feedback from the community already had led to several changes to the project.
One was to reduce the number of residents from around 100 to a maximum of 63. Other changes include requiring background checks of all residents, and drug tests for its short-term affordable housing residents.
In addition, outside activities will be wrapped up by 9 p.m., smoking will be restricted to a single internal courtyard, and there will be no amplified music allowed on the property, he said.
“We want to be a good neighbor,” Martin said.
Some critics circulated police records detailing the number and type of calls at SAY’s Tamayo Village project, which serves homeless youth in much the same way on nearby Yulupa Avenue. It showed 62 calls for service in three years, ranging from drunk in public and vandalism to burglary, battery and rape.
But most of those calls were initiated by Tamayo Village staff, Martin said. For comparison, he noted that the nearby elementary school had 97 calls over the same period and an apartment complex had 88.
Of the calls at Tamayo House, only 10 incidents resulted in police reports being filed, or a rate of three per year.
The city’s planning director, Chuck Regalia, said he understood residents’ concerns about the format, but said breaking the meeting up into smaller groups helped as many questions as possible to be answered.
Housh said SAY’s application isn’t yet complete because city staff members have additional questions they want answered about the proposed operation. The first public hearing will be before the Planning Commission in late November or December, and it will go to the City Council in January or February.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or email@example.com. On Twitter @citybeater.