Webster Groves residents fight university expansion
‘We’re going to be around for that fight if it takes years,’ Resident says
By Andrea Sisney
(Webster Groves, Feb. 3, 2011) Webster Groves resident Maggie Sowash said she is proud to live in a beautiful old brick house in the historic Webster Park area. Sowash, who has lived there since 1987, also said her home and town are in danger of being disturbed by heavy commuter traffic and loud Webster University students.
“At some point, they’re probably going to take the whole area over,” Sowash said.
The self-proclaimed “concerned homeowner” and president of the Webster Park Association said she is frustrated with Webster’s proposed plan to acquire part of Eden Theological Seminary and turn the Luhr Library into a new science building. Sowash, along with local entrepreneur Douglas Nissing and other residents of Webster Groves and surrounding areas, have created Residents for Webster Groves — a group focused on keeping the university south of Lockwood Avenue.
Webster agreed in its 2003 master plan not to build north of Lockwood. Residents for Webster Groves say the university is breaking its promise, and could continue to do so if they are allowed to purchase Eden property.
“Use what you have,” Sowash said. “Don’t take any more of our community.”
Since 2009, Residents for Webster Groves has asked Webster University to tell the “full truth” concerning the proposed expansion onto five acres of Eden property through letters to local newspapers, meetings and their website. The group demands restrictions against any construction north of Lockwood, the original boundary for the university.
“It doesn’t take a lot of work to research and see these things (the university is saying) are not true,” Nissing said. “I just don’t like being lied to. It feels as if the attitude of the university is that they don’t care about us, just expansion and money. They have a certain tone that frankly makes me angry.”
Sowash said the transfer of Eden property to Webster University is not a done deal. Residents for Webster Groves feel that local media and the university deliberately overlook this fact. Nissing said he feels there has been a lack of open communication between the community and university administrators, including President Elizabeth Stroble and Eden President David Greenhaw, and that many university meetings have been stacked and staged with a condescending tone towards Webster Groves.
Nissing graduated from the College School when it was run by Webster College. He said the university is a valuable part of the Webster Groves community — he is not against Webster University growth, but against further expansion into Webster Groves neighborhoods and green space.
Sowash said that the students only inhabit Webster Groves for an average of four years and do not have permanence in the community.
“You guys are not hosting us,” Sowash said. “You are a guest.”
The Webster Groves City Council voted on Jan. 18 to pass a zoning ordinance that would restrict non-residential buildings built in residential areas. Council members and residents are concerned that a new science building would be an unattractive addition to the community and could put dangerous chemicals in their backyard.
“My husband is concerned about a science building,” Sowash said. “He’s concerned about plumes and chemicals. There are all kinds of safety issues. The Department of Homeland Security came out with rules (to regulate chemical use.) Is Webster University capable of enforcing those?”
Sowash is referring to “Appendix A: Chemicals of Interest” released by the DHS in November 2007, which identified three chemical-related security issues: chemicals released from facilities that could have adverse effects on human life, chemicals that could be converted into weapons if stolen from facilities and chemicals that could be mixed with materials to create possible contamination.
Nissing said Residents for Webster Groves has a broad base of support with an elected steering committee of three members. Nissing said the group has members from Shrewsbury, Kirkwood, Glendale and Collinsville as well as Webster Groves. Since the group does not pay dues or have regular meetings, Nissing said he could not be sure of the number of members.
Webster University professor and Webster Groves resident Michael Salevouris said conflict is one of the universal truths of universities.
“I think it’s really unfortunate,” Salevouris said. “It’s a small group, in my opinion, that has always tried to throw a monkey wrench into the plans.”
Similar concerns arose from the community when Webster University expanded its residential housing area onto Garden Avenue and when the Sverdrup building was constructed. Nissing, who grew up in Webster Groves and recently moved back after spending some time on the East Coast, said he had friends who lived on Garden Avenue whose houses no longer exist, and that Webster Groves had no voice in the dialogue around the construction.
Salevouris said the university has always kept the community in mind when expanding, and that the school is doing a lot to smooth the relationship over, including participating in community events like the annual Fourth of July parade and offering many cultural assets.
“Every building we’ve built has been built to fit into the character of the community,” Salevouris said. “We’ve bent over backwards to accommodate. Since I’ve been here, they’ve done a lot to beautify.”
Much of the conflict is centered on the university’s non-profit status, which keeps Webster University from paying property tax. Eden is also a non-profit organization, so the proposed acquisition would not take any more property off of the tax rolls.
The city of Webster Groves pays for street repairs around the campus, as well as fire and police department visits. Webster University often points out that college students contribute to local businesses and the economy, but Residents for Webster Groves feels that money is not enough.
“Give something to the community instead of taking it away,” Sowash said. “I don’t see students contributing that much to shops. Commuters get in at six and leave at nine. They’re not eating, shopping or getting haircuts.”
Nissing said regardless of the ourcome of the purchase, Residents for Webster Groves would shift the conversation and their approach. He said he would not consider the acquisition the end of the process.
“We’re going to be around for that fight if it takes years,” Nissing said.