Lovejoy residents learned Monday evening that an "informational referendum" on Nov. 2 will let them tell the city whether they want to expand the Hennepin Park Community Center with a $2.7 million state grant.
A stormy meeting attended by 150 residents in Hennepin Park demonstrated how divided the Lovejoy community is over whether to accept the money or send it back to Albany.
Those supporting the project argued that it will allow the center, which operates five months a year, to stay open year-round, giving youths a place to go on winter nights.
Those against it said green space in Hennepin Park will be sacrificed for an oversized building that will include a suite of offices for the Advisory Board for Lovejoy Elderly & Youth, or ABLEY.
The 24-year-old ABLEY is viewed by opponents as the power base of veteran Lovejoy Council Member Norman M. Bakos, who lost the Democratic nomination for re-election amid charges of owning slum housing and using government money to buy a rural campground.
"If the people in the neighborhood are not for it, then the mayor's not for it," said Samuel F. Iraci Jr., commissioner of community development, who was chairman of the meeting.
Robert Stack of Macon/Chaintreuil Architects described plans for a two-story addition to the Ludington Street side of the center. He estimated the addition and new parking spaces will take up 3.5 percent more of Hennepin Park than the current arrangement.
In addition, he said, the existing building will be totally renovated, with new floors and ceilings, new heating and air conditioning, baths and lockers. Also, asbestos will be removed, and the building will be made accessible to the handicapped.
The opposition, led by the Hennepin Park Preservation Society, argued that a 150-foot addition is equivalent to the length of five houses. Group members also said that although the city retreated from 53 new parking spaces to 24 under public pressure, that could be reversed later.
The society also claimed that the latchkey and day-care programs in the expanded building would give preference to single-parent and low-income families.
"There is not one penny allocated for staffing and maintenance of the new or existing building," argued Susan Nardozzi, society president.
The current staff of three would be supplemented by 20 volunteers from ABLEY, she noted, but she charged that ABLEY hasn't been able to enroll volunteers in the past.
James F. August, the society's attorney, said the project has many legal problems.
"This is a very serious violation of the public trust doctrine," he said. "It says you cannot 'alienate' a public park for the benefit of a private individual. ABLEY is a private, not-for-profit group that provides private benefit to private individuals."
Several times Iraci had to remind the overflow crowd to stop yelling and let each person speak.
At one point, the Rev. Paula Gustafson, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, scolded opponents of the project.
"I'm appalled," she said. "You folks have the opportunity before you, and before your children and your grandchildren, to be a community that has offerings for them. There are children in this area that are not only from poor families, they're from very dysfunctional and uncaring families, and they need help."
Several teen-agers took their turns at the microphone.
"We don't need any of these programs -- we just want a warm place to hang around in the winter," said Kristy Kochan, 13. "I just want to know why you think this is so bad. This is like the best thing that's ever happened in Lovejoy."