April 2, 2020

City council questions university on property purchases

Property values, real estate transactions and the future of Webster University dominated discussion at the third collaborative meeting between Webster University administrators, Webster Groves officials and Eden Theological Seminary administrators. All three entities met to discuss the future relationship between Eden and the university in greater detail. The meeting took place Oct. 10 in the McCarthy Room on Eden’s campus.

Eden President David Greenhaw presented Eden’s plan to downsize its campus. The vacated student housing and the large green space at the corner of Lockwood Avenue and Bompart Avenue was designated as “Zone C” by the Eden presentation and will be sold or leased to an outside party, Greenhaw said.

Webster Groves Mayor Gerry Welch asked Webster University President Elizabeth Stroble directly whether the university wanted to purchase Zone C.

“I don’t have an answer for that,” Stroble said. “We don’t have a master plan for that corner because we don’t own it; there is no hidden plan. We have no plan, currently, for development of that space. I haven’t had that conversation with my board.”

The meeting moved to the topic of Webster University’s properties. Chief Financial Officer Greg Gunderson provided information on the residential properties currently owned by the university. City council members requested this information at the last collaborative meeting.

Gunderson said he wanted to “correct misinformation” about property owned by the university and answer questions from city representatives.

Gunderson said the university does not approach sellers of residential property in Webster Groves, but rather waits to be approached. The university owns 19 residential properties in the city of Webster Groves, Gunderson said. Most of the properties reside on Catalina Avenue, California Avenue and Pasadena Avenue.

“We don’t go out of our way to acquire these properties,” Gunderson said. “We purchase them as part of a transitional zone, which is part of our agreement to the city to have something of a buffer between university property and private residences.”

Gunderson emphasized the benefits of this practice, indicating the residential properties were not intended for student use, but rather for families. He also said the properties are maintained at “community standards” in order to keep property values high.

Councilmember Greg Mueller voiced concerns about the university purchasing property in Webster Groves. He said any expansion or move across Lockwood Avenue onto Eden property would require more residential purchases to increase the transitional zone. He said it’s happened with homes on Garden Avenue and Edgar Road, and “many of those homes aren’t there anymore.”

Mueller said the university practice of purchasing residential homes and renting them to families would discourage new homebuyers in the area.

“I can tell you, personally, that I would be hesitant to buy a new home on a street that is all rentals, and I think that is a concern many potential homebuyers might have,” Mueller said.

Webster University Provost Julian Schuster disagreed with Mueller’s assessment, stating it was “wrong to infer” the university was lowering property values. Schuster said the university has purchased 19 homes in 19 years and was not seeking to drastically expand or force residents out.

According to a new report from the real estate research firm, Zillow, new homeowners haven’t been discouraged from buying in Webster Groves. An Oct. 19 article in the St. Louis Business Journal states Webster Groves is “the hottest buyer’s market in the St. Louis area,” according to the report.

The next collaborative meeting will take place Tuesday, Oct. 30 at 4 p.m. at Webster Groves City Hall. The meeting will be a closed session. Welch said the closed session was needed to “discuss the details of possible real estate transactions.” Welch also said the meeting will likely focus on further arrangements for the sale or lease of Eden property, potentially to Webster University.

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