READING, Pa. – A $9 million Reading Housing Authority project that would include a 24-hour daycare has received approval from the city’s Zoning Hearing Board.
The daycare center at the Oakbrook Homes urban community would help residents along the path to self-sufficiency.
The project would convert an unused 7,500-square-foot property administration building at 1001 Scott St. into the new Neighborhood Resource Center and an abandoned 12,000-square-foot, three-story central boiler facility at 500 McClellan St. into a Family Services complex, housing day care for 70 children would include.
The boiler system had to be rededicated for use as a daycare center. It is located in an R-3 residential zone district.
The zoners approved the project 4-0 last week, opting to make the daycare with office space a special exception.
The agency’s executive director, Stacey Keppen, said 2024 is a target for the project if funding is secured and if construction delays caused by COVID-19 can be overcome.
It has also granted the housing authority’s request for an exemption from the requirements for a 6-foot buffer around a parking space for eight or more cars, allowing the requested 4-foot grass buffer along McClellan Street instead.
The agency said the reduction would allow better lighting and visibility for people coming and going to their cars in the middle of the night for 24-hour day care.
“Applicant’s proposed use conforms to the requirements of the zoning ordinance and will not adversely affect the health, safety or welfare of the neighborhood or zoning district generally,” the board said in its decision.
The only condition the board set for approval was that the city decide on the overall occupancy of the building. The agency must also meet state requirements for a licensed daycare and provide the city with a copy of the license, and parking spaces intended for drop-off/pickup use must be clearly marked for daycare use only.
The agency must also hold a meeting with the city’s building and fire inspectors to ensure compliance with all requirements. must obtain necessary building, commercial and fire permits; and have mandatory signage.
The day care would use 7,000 to 8,000 square feet on the lower and middle levels of the boiler plant, according to the plans.
The housing authority, in its presentation to zone residents, stated that all adjacent properties are owned by the housing authority. There was no public opposition to the plan, the zoners said in the decision.
The housing authority “is committed to funding all architectural and engineering costs and $1.8 million for construction from tight capital improvement allocations,” their plan reads. “The project requires $3.2 million immediately to move forward with a phased approach to construction, while the funds to complete the project in its entirety would allow for overall cost savings.”
Keppen said it has “already committed money to this project, but we’re going to need significantly more money because the money we have competes with what we do at our core, which is providing housing.”
The building at 1001 Scott St., a small portion of which is now used for the complex’s administrative activities, would become the Neighborhood Resource Center, which would utilize two large common rooms and a commercial kitchen for programs, including a pantry, small grocery store, and Business center.
A smaller office would serve as a shared space for staffing agencies to ensure easy access for clients. Some Berks County Intermediate Unit Head Start services based in the building would move out.
The disused boiler house provided all heat for Oakbrook Homes’ 53 acres up until 18 years ago, but now “it’s essentially a shell,” Keppen previously said.
Oakbrook Homes is Reading’s largest public housing development with around 1,600 residents, over half of whom are children and over 100 are over 60 years of age. 87% are “extremely poor” and earn 30% or less of the region’s median income. Since March 2020, households in Oakbrook Homes have seen a more than $564,000 drop in earned income, according to the housing authority.
Although Oakbrook is Reading’s largest council housing complex, its location in the city’s District 1 is 3.2 miles from the city center where most of the services you need are located.
Keppen has said it hopes to work with Opportunity House Shelter in Reading to model the center after its 26-year-old Second Street Learning Centre, which was the city’s first 24-hour, seven days a week childcare scheme. This program says it serves 350 children aged 6 months to 13 years per year.