April 2, 2020

Path unclear after Ordinance 8753

Eden Theological Seminary and Webster University have shared buildings, facilities, books and other academic resources since 1967. The relationship will continue, Eden President David Greenhaw said.

Whether that relationship will include the sale of Eden property to Webster University, though, is now up for debate. Representatives from the city of Webster Groves, Eden and Webster University continue to negotiate the use of Eden property in the wake of the passage of Ordinance 8753 and the Eden master plan.

“Our (master) plan states that we don’t plan to occupy or use certain buildings on our campus as we downsize,” Greenhaw said. “We entered into a contract a few years ago, printed in your paper, I believe, with (Webster) University to develop a use for them in those spaces.”

Webster University intends to utilize some of the now-empty buildings at Eden. However, those intentions remain unclear. Early planning by the university and Eden examined the possibility of a science building on the property, according to city officials.

That plan has since been abandoned and the new Webster University master plan shows a future science building on existing campus grounds near the newly-constructed East Academic Building.

Before Webster University and Eden can finalize transactions, they must be approved by the city. Representatives from the city are concerned with the lack of specificity in these plans.

“Before (Webster University) does much of anything, they have to get through the rules,” Webster Groves City Mayor Gerry Welch said. “If and when Webster (University) moves across (Lockwood Avenue), what do they intend to do? We — the city — we don’t know.”

Several options have been presented to the city, Welch said. Several options have also been withdrawn. The construction of a residence for Webster University President Elizabeth Stroble and a new science building were separately proposed and withdrawn, Welch said.

Webster University Associate Vice President and Chief Communications Officer Barbara O’Malley provided The Journal with a written statement:

“The passing of Bill 8753 limits and restricts the use of Eden’s property. Because we are such close and collaborative partners with Eden, the ordinance is an obstacle to constructive dialogue and conversation as we consider moving forward with our master plan. It is our hope that the conversations with city council, Eden and Webster University taking place outside of the city council meeting format will help to move things forward.”

O’Malley declined to comment on the specific designs for the use of Eden property. She would not confirm what options Webster University has presented or withdrawn. Stroble could not be reached for comment.

Despite the difficulty, Webster Groves City Councilmember Ken Burns said the university’s movement across Lockwood Avenue and development of a portion of Eden is inevitable.

“The solution can be more obvious than we sometimes make it out to be,” Burns said. “I believe we’re going to find a solution that is in the longterm interests of Eden, Webster (University) and the city in a way that is optimal for all the parties. That certainly needs to involve Eden downsizing, Webster growing and the city overseeing that transaction in a responsible way.”

Ordinance 8753 established new requirements for the use of Eden’s property. Burns, who was the only councilmember to vote against the ordinance, said he is confident the solution can be found in a timely manner.

“There is certainly a solution out there that will work, and I’m very optimistic about it,” Burns said. “I think we all value the green space on Bompart and Lockwood, and I think (Eden and Webster) are sensitive to that. It’s in the city’s interest to help Eden downsize and Webster grow, so I would hope we can find a solution quickly if we act appropriately.”

Welch referred to the joint discussions among the city, Eden and Webster as “big-picture” meetings, and a way to make longterm decisions. Whether all three parties can work together successfully is yet to be seen. Greenhaw and Burns have both expressed frustration with the city code zoning Eden as a residential property. Greenhaw called the zoning of Eden “antiquated.”

“We completed this campus in 1924, and that same year the city established its first zoning ordinance, zoning Eden as residential,” Greenhaw said. “It’s silly. We’ve never been residential and we never will be. Other cities have areas zoned for higher education. Why can’t we explore that option and provide new uses for the property?”

The path forward for the three parties remains unclear. The city demands specificity, Webster demands expedience and Eden demands rezoning.

“The direction of the discussions is yet to be well-defined,” Burns said. “However, I’m fairly optimistic they will be successful.”

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