Union Gospel Mission narrowly avoids last-minute delays to expansion project

12/17/2013 1:54 PM

12/17/2013 1:55 PM

The $8.2 million project to tear down the current women’s and children’s shelter at Union Gospel Mission and build a new center, initially announced in June, came under fire at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

The 40,310 square-foot, four-story building was considered a done deal by both council and the mission — until the new building plans were submitted to the city in October and city staff realized the initial site plan approved in 2002 limits the building to one story.

The mission required a site plan amendment from council to continue, but some area residents saw the amendment as a way to stop the shelter’s expansion, which they say hinders economic development along the East Lancaster Avenue corridor and increases the crime rates in the area.

The mission is under a deadline to get approval by the end of the year, or risk losing a tax credit of $1.9 million that’s needed to build the center, said Don Shisler, president and chief executive officer of the mission.

A motion by Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray to deny the site approval was shot down in a 4-3 vote, with Council members Jungus Jordan and Danny Scarth voting with Gray to deny the site plan and Gyna Bivens and Joel Burns absent.

A denial vote could have killed the entire project, Shisler said.

While council ultimately voted in favor of the site plan amendment in a 6-1 decision, with Gray voting against, Mayor Betsy Price said this issue highlighted the need to update the city’s homelessness plan and she called for residents of east Fort Worth to be part of updating that plan.

Mike Phipps, an eastside resident, said he was homeless himself in the 1970s and he understands that the support systems are necessary, as he used them himself to pass his General Educational Development test and get out of homelessness.

But he argued against the expansion, saying the homeless shelters need to be more equitably distributed throughout the city.

“I rose from that and I know that we could all be there tomorrow. ... But we don’t see this problem filtering to the west. We don’t see it coming downtown,” Phipps said.

About 20 people in the audience opposed the expansion, and more could have come to the meeting had it been at night, said several of the residents.

“I share your concerns in east Fort Worth; it is a major economic problem for you,” Price said of the homeless shelters on East Lancaster. Price voted in favor of the expansion.

About 50 people, including homeless people and Union Gospel Mission volunteers and employees, came to speak in favor of the amendment change.

Rodney Gregg, a homeless man at the mission, said the expansion is needed.

“I was homeless and lost hope for a better life. The mission not only gave me a place to live and food to eat, but it also gave me clothing. I now also have medical care, I also take classes,” said Gregg, who works in the kitchen at the mission.

Gray, who represents the shelter area, had concerns about how the plan for the expansion was communicated to the neighborhood and area residents.

“All of the homeless shelters are in District 8, but homelessness is not just a District 8 problem,” Gray said before the meeting. “Most of the homeless are not original residents of District 8, but they come from all over the city, all over the county, all over the state and the country. My plea this morning to my council colleagues is to take a look at areas in their districts that we can all agree on and work on to move those people.”

The current women’s shelter has a capacity of 32 people and does not allow men with families to stay at the shelter. Each month, the shelter turns away about 200 women who want to enroll in the program, according to the mission’s website.

The expansion would take the capacity of the center to 110 people, Shisler said. It have five rooms for men with children to stay together and five rooms for families with children. It would also include 28 double occupancy rooms for single women, a library and computer room, a pantry with a walk-in freezer and commercial-sized laundry for the mission and chapel.

Timing questioned

Councilmen W.B. “Zim” Zimmerman, Jordan and Gray all questioned why the mission did not seek approval of the new site plan earlier, instead of waiting until the last council meeting of the year.

“When we see something fast-tracked and coming in a morning meeting as opposed to an evening meeting, it raises a red flag with us and we start asking questions — what is the agenda here?” Jordan said during the meeting.

Shisler said the delay was unintentional, and that they did not learn about the need for an amendment until late in the process.

The mission applied for building permits Oct. 17, said Dana Dana Burghdoff, deputy director of the planning and development department, and the application was approved by the Dec. 11 zoning commission in a 7-2 vote.

“I have a huge concern that we are continuing to build facilities as opposed to raising money to transition people, women, families and individuals, out of homelessness and into permanent supportive housing,” said Gray.

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