Monday, May 20, 2024

The West Cambridge Youth Center took another delicate step through a minefield Monday, nearing its end after a decade-long crawl.

Before it moves forward, though, vice mayor Marjorie Decker had to once again assure people that — rumors aside — the deal to buy a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall for the youth center is still alive.

“I spoke with a member of the VFW,” Decker said during the City Council meeting. “He thought the council had acted to stop the purchase.”

But Decker stressed that “no one on the city council is delaying the purchase. There is a lot of confusion.”

The vote taken by the council merely sent a proposal to City Manager Robert Healy to finalize the purchase of the hall, at 688 Huron Ave. Healy would return the plan for a final vote by the council. In an amended motion, in which councilor Anthony Galluccio asked about legal issues that might affect the city when people rent the hall, the council directed Healy to consider whether zoning variances would be required, as well as parking requirements, estimated construction costs and costs incurred by keeping the dance floor, as well as other issues.

So there’s some distance to go through that minefield.

A lot of attention is focused on the deal, and this isn’t the first time rumor or false reports about it have had to be quashed. Supporters of the youth center and members and friends of the groups using the hall to dance have flooded council meetings and filled public comment periods with dramatic and poignant calls — either to please, please save the hall’s rare, springy dance floor and a service that brings 30,000 people to Cambridge (and hosts 500 city voters) or to finally, finally create a youth center.

“We don’t have a youth center like everyone else around the city,” Jerry Bernard had said at an earlier meeting. “There was a joke that someone would have to die for there to be action on a youth center.

“If someone has to kiss a bullet to get a youth center, I would kiss a bullet,” Bernard said. “That’s how much I care.”

At the time, council chambers were filled with supporters of the center, many of whom were children — and would have used it — when the project was proposed.

This time the strongest showing was by local dance enthusiasts and VFW members worried that the city was going to buy the hall and shut them out, using the building almost exclusively as a youth center. Past endorsements of a compromise in which everyone shared the hall, including those made by Decker and shared at this meeting by dance enthusiasts, seemed not to have taken hold, and the testimony that was heard showed the same concerns seen during the summer — and long before that.

“I live alone,” said resident Louisa Pepper during public comment, urging the council to save the hall’s tango, swing and contra dancing events and classes. “I have very little options [for places to dance] that are nonalcoholic, nonreligious. Also, young people love to dance. It gets harder and harder to find a place. All of us need a little joy. The world is so dark.”

The issue arose when members approached Healy informally in 1994. A search for a site began, and proposed locations including a city armory, library and fields, including Buckingham Browne & Nichols athletic fields, according to a letter from the city manager to the council.

In 2002 the city approached the Mount Auburn VFW about buying their site for a below-market price in exchange for renovations to a portion of the building, which the group would lease back.

The VFW declined, but the council was interested enough to appropriate $6 million for such an arrangement on May 9 of this year. Initially, city officials thought creating a youth center would run as high as $7.7 million.