December 9, 2016

Webster University, Eden fill chamber for City Council’s public hearing on educational zoning

The Webster Groves City Council tasked itself with understanding the goals of three local institutions at a public hearing concerning the city’s proposed educational zoning. Councilmembers aimed to understand a university’s desire to grow, a seminary’s desire to survive and the city’s desire to preserve its character.

Throughout the night, Webster University President Elizabeth Stroble and Eden Theological Seminary President David Greenhaw would exchange blows with council members over proposed educational zoning that could stop campus expansion and seminary plans completely. Disagreements over green space and parking requirements, master plan processes and submission and property use and values were among the many discussion points between Stroble and Greenhaw.

On Sept. 2, hearing attendees filled every available chair available, crammed into corners, sat on the floor and filled the doorway of the chamber as Stroble approached the speaker’s podium that faced the seven Webster Groves Council members. Behind her, a sea of students sporting Webster University shirts and campus- job nametags applauded her. The students  had rallied before the meeting, in an attempt to make their voices heard at the council meeting.

The university believes, if passed, the proposed zoning amendments, if passed, would stop any future growth on the Webster Groves campus. Stroble said the Interdisciplinary Sciences Building would be impossible to build, and the parking and green space requirements would make it difficult to do anything with the campus.

“We have to have a science building,” Stroble said. “We’re a great arts school, we’re a great business school, we’re a great education school, we’re a great communications school. We need to be a great STEMM school.”

Councilmember Greg Mueller noted the proposed educational zoning took into account the plans for the building. Stroble said she did not feel confident the building would be able to be constructed under the confines of the proposed zoning changes.

Stroble stressed the importance of the master plan process, which she believes would be hampered by the proposed zoning changes. Later in the evening, Stroble said the university would not feel comfortable submitting their master plan under the new ordinance, and does not feel confident in the city’s current master plan process either.

According to the International Town and Gown Association (ITGA)— an organization that investigates universities and their relationships with surrounding communitiesy’s relationship— in 2013, 33 percent of friction between universities and local governments were caused by campus expansion issues, while land use and zoning caused 32 percent of friction.

While Webster University has made parts of their master plan public, transparency and issues with the city’s master plan process have been a source of friction inside the city council chambers. Stroble said the master-plan process, in its current form and proposed form, would make any university expansion uncertain.

Stroble, Greenhaw and Eden attorney Gary Feder  all voiced concern over the ordinance’s master plan wording.  In the current draft of Ordinance 8851, the city council may approve the master plan as presented, approve the master plan with changes deemed necessary, or disapprove of the campus master plan altogether. The university and seminary worry that this wording would allow the city council to deny any masterplan they do not agree with outright.

Through a crowded doorway, heads peeked over shoulders, listening in as Webster Groves Councilmember Greg Mueller quizzed Stroble on the university’s issues with the proposed zoning amendments. He stressed the importance of realizing the city’s goals, not just the university’sies.

“Recognize that our job here is not to enact your vision, but to understand the vision for the city of Webster Groves and the 25,000 people who live here, including the university,” Mueller said.

Greenhaw described the city’s proposed educational zoning as a flawed document. He said while Eden submitted a version of the zoning they thought could work, they do not advocate for the zoning and feel it should be voted down.

Feder echoed Greenhaw. He said the proposed zoning changes focused on who owned the properties, and not what they were being used for.

“This zoning is not about uses, its about users,” Feder said. “Ninety percent of the ordinance we could live with. It’s the other 10 percent that is the problem. I’ve seen ordinances all around the country, I’ve never seen an ordinance like this.”

Councilmember Anne Tolan said Eden and the university should be zoned differently because of what surrounds them. She said while the university is bordered by mostly commercial buildings, Highway 44 and railroad, Eden is bordered by neighborhoods.

If passed, the proposed zoning would zone the city’s educational institutions into different categories based on student population. These categories, proposed by the zoning code, would set requirements for parking spaces, green space, and land use, permiited uses, conditional uses and accessory uses.  Thirty percent of the campus would have to be parking, and another 30 percent would be green space.

The university would be zoned EC-3, while Eden would be zoned EC-2. This would permit the university to use Eden’s land for administrative offices. The university could request to use Eden’s land for classrooms. The current proposal does not list any further permitted or conditional opportunities for collaboration between the institutions. Greenhaw said the proposed zoning punishes Eden for its relationship with the university, and does not take into account its other relationships with universities that could be considered EC-3.

While the university would be required to cover 30 percent of their campus with greenspace, Eden’s campus would have to use 50 percent. of their land for green space.

In the meeting on Aug. 28,Stroble said in the meeting on Aug. 28, it was clear the university’s plans for growth did not resonate with the wishes of the city council, but said the university is not against balanced amendments to educational zoning.

At the Aug. 19 meeting of the city council, Webster resident and Eden neighbor Frank Janoski said it was clear to him andfor people north of Lockwood that, the only concern was property value. He said his main concern is that the expansion of the university will bring the loss of more streets in Webster Groves.

At a meeting in Sunnen Lounge on Aug. 28, Provost Julian Schuster said the city of Webster Groves would not be where it is now without the university. the city of Webster Groves would not be where it is at currently. He said, in response to a question about the economic impact of the university, that they would be willing to look into the changes in property value in areas bordering the university if it was something that could help the situation in city hall.

According to Zillow.com, property values in Webster Groves have raised 4.5 percent in the past year. Zillow forecasts Webster property values will raise another 1.7 percent in the next year. Webster Groves median list price on homes is $163 higher than homes in the St. Louis Metro area.

With over 70 speaker cards submitted at the speakers podium, Mayor Gerry Welch started the meeting by informing the crowd that the city believed another public hearing on Sept. 18 would be needed for everyone to speak.

University students, Residents for Webster Groves members and other organizations wishing to speak were asked by the mayor to organize their thoughts into a presentations per group for the Sept. 18 public hearing.

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