An interactive view of Webster University's campus.
City Plan Commission hosts public forum on educational zoning
At a public hearing on Monday, Webster University Chief Financial Officer Greg Gunderson voiced his concern that a proposal to change educational zoning in Webster Groves will limit the university’s future expansion.
For schools labeled as being a college or university, Gunderson said one regulation in the proposed zoning code appears to limit the number of beds in campus housing to 1,250.
“That is an unusual and restrictive requirement that appears to limit the size of our campus,” Gunderson said.
The City Plan Commission presented amendments to educational zoning in Webster Groves during a public hearing at its Dec. 2 meeting. Webster University and Eden Theological Seminary representatives both requested that the amendments be tabled and discussed informally.
Webster University Attorney Traci Pupillo said during the hearing that she didn’t believe any educational institutions in Webster Groves had been notified of the potential zoning changes until last week, right before Thanksgiving. She said that was not adequate time for those institutions to review the amendments.
Pupillo added that she did not believe the timing of the proposed changes to be coincidental. Webster University and Eden Theological Seminary filed suit against the City of Webster Groves on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013.
“It appears that perhaps one of the reasons is to make sure that Webster University can’t use the property that the Plan Commission recommend they be allowed to use,” Pupillo said. “It wants to implement a zoning change so that regardless of the outcome of the litigation that Webster University won’t be able to use the property.”
Webster Groves City Attorney Helmut Starr assured Pupillo that the planning and development staff began working on the zoning changes long before the university and Eden filed suit.
In the suit, the university and seminary allege the city unlawfully denied the university and Eden’s application for a conditional use permit (CUP) in August. The CUP would have allowed Webster University to use two buildings on Eden Theological Seminary’s campus and demolish another. Webster University purchased the property from Eden in 2010.
At an August City Council meeting in which the city denied Webster University use of property at Eden, Mayor Gerry Welch said the Council, the university and Eden would need to address larger issues. She said the interested parties should discuss potential boundaries for university growth, changes to educational zoning and concerns of residents regarding theuniversity’s purchase of residential homes. The university owns 20 taxable homes in Webster Groves.
At the City Plan Commission meeting, Pupillo asked the city to slow the process for the proposed zoning changes and seek to better engage stakeholders in conversation on any proposed changes.
Like Pupillo, Welch said she wants everyone involved in the conversation.
“People need to sit at the table and talk to each other,” Welch said.“As mayor, I can do this unofficially and in an advisory capacity … If I have to handcuff people to the table to sit down and make them talk.”
The proposed amendments include defining four levels of Educational Campus Districts, each with various regulations. The four levels proposed were elementary schools, secondary schools, special needs schools and seminaries, and small colleges and universities.
After reading the proposed zoning changes, Gunderson said he was unsure how The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and the Opera Theatre of St. Louis fit into the zoning. He also did not know how off-campus student housing would be affected by the proposed amendments.
Furthermore, Gunderson had questions for the city plan commission regarding how much the city can modify an institution’s Campus Master Plan(CMP) before approving it, in the proposed zoning code.
The proposed zoning code includes regulations for parking, property dimensions and accessory uses. The requirements for the proposed amendments for the CMP strongly resemble the requirements and regulations of current major educational campus zoning.
Gunderson said he found it difficult to address all of his concerns in the three-minute response time allotted per person during public hearings.
“We (Webster) were disappointed that this was not a collaborative process,” Gunderson said.
Polly Burtch, former Webster University director of news and public information, encouraged the city to consider the educational missions of the institutions and their value to community as they deliberate.
“At what point did what Webster University is doing become bad? I feel like it’s an us and them situation,” Burtch said.
City Plan Commission Vice-Chair Eric Romano said after hearing all of the stakeholders’ concerns, he feels stuck in the middle of the city, university and residents. He encouraged dialogue outside the setting of a public hearing.
Starr said the public hearings are meant to serve as a platform for discussion.
“I don’t have enough first-hand information. I find it difficult to make an informed decision about what’s being challenged,” Romano said.
The three parties have held such meetings before, although they never made significant progress. The university, the city and Eden held a series of collaborative meetings from August 2012 to January 2013 in response to controversy surrounding Ordinance 8753. President Elizabeth Stroble and Provost Julian Schuster said in an August 2012 interview with The Journal that the city’s passage of the ordinance limited potential collaborative efforts b etween Eden and the university.
During the collaborative meetings, city representatives proposed a zoning change for the educational institutions from their current residential zone to an educational zone. At the last meeting in January, Welch said a representative from Webster University and Eden “needs to make some steps.” At the time, Eden’s President David Greenhaw said he was not sure Eden had a need to rezone at that time.
During the public hearing on Monday, Greenhaw said he didn’t understand why the city wants to fix zoning codes that are not broken.
“It appears to me to be a series of solutions that I have yet to see how they can resolve the problems,” Greenhaw said at the meeting.
The City Plan Commission will continue to discuss the proposed amendments at its next meeting on Jan. 6, 2014.