November 27, 2020

Ordinance 8753 limits university’s growth, Stroble says

For Webster University, the passage of Ordinance 8753 will limit future collaborative efforts between Eden Theological Seminary and the university. If Webster is unable to purchase or lease property from Eden, the university’s capacity to improve its “programs, relationships and services to students” — along with the utilization and construction of facilities — will be negatively impacted, President Elizabeth Stroble and Provost Julian Schuster said in an interview on Aug. 31.

At a Webster Groves City Council meeting on Aug. 21, Ordinance 8753 amendments placed restrictions on Eden regarding whom it may sell or lease its property to. Any lessee or tenet would be prohibited from employing more than 15 individuals on the property. Also, future tenets or lessees would not be able to occupy more than 5,000 square feet. Any entity seeking more than 5,000 square feet would be required to get city approval for expansion.

The ordinance outlined Webster’s agreement with Eden for the sale or lease of 4.3 acres of Eden’s property. Eden also wishes to sell 7.5 acres of green space located at the corner of Bompart and Lockwood avenues. Webster reserves the right of first refusal from Eden on the land. This means Eden is obligated to offer the land for sale or lease to Webster before offering it to other buyers.

Webster University would like to increase its undergraduate population to 5,000 students in 10 to 15 years. Approximately 3,000 undergraduate students are currently enrolled at the university.

“The strategic cooperation between Eden Theological Seminary and Webster University was designed to enhance capacity of both institutions and to serve the students better,” Schuster said. “That cooperation included the sharing of curricula, the sharing of resources and the sharing of infrastructure and facilities. The current ordinance limits that.”

If the ordinance passed, Stroble said ­­­­­­­­— on Aug. 31 — the university would evaluate its options. Stroble and Schuster would not speculate about the possibility of a joint lawsuit with Eden against the city.

Kim Griffo, executive director at the International Town and Gown Association, a consulting firm specializing in community and university expansion issues  said when lawyers become involved, compromise usually takes longer.

“Some (universities and communities) will take up to a year (to resolve their issues). Some will work it through in six to nine months. And some will take two to three years,” Griffo said. “Now what happens is once the lawyers get involved, it drags out.”

Griffo said the keys to resolving university and community disputes are communication, routine meetings and willingness to compromise.

Stroble said compromise between the city, university and seminary was possible. She said this compromise could be found during the collaborative meetings the entities started on Aug. 28.
During the Aug. 28 meeting, however, Stroble said the number of possible solutions would be limited by the passage of Ordinance 8753.

“I would hope that the largest possible range of solutions would be on the table for us and not restrained and restricted by an ordinance that we are opposed to,” Stroble said. “That really constrains the possible solutions on the table instead of expanding them.

“I see the collaborative, candid discussion being slightly constrained — if not chilled — by an ordinance we know is coming up for a vote next week.”

Stroble also said at the joint meeting that if the assembled delegation wasn’t invested in fostering success for all involved entities, then the university should submit its master plan to the city council for a vote soon and “just quit using up time.”

“Because the more we delay bringing the master plan through the process, the more it is costing us in students and money,” Stroble said.

Griffo said a level of trust is required among institutions for any compromise to occur.
“Nobody likes surprises, especially neighbors and cities,” Griffo said. “Sometimes universities don’t always share information along the way and then that’s when everything falls apart.”

During the June 5 city council meeting, several residents learned of Webster University and Eden’s first-refusal agreement. The new knowledge of the Eden/Webster University right to first refusal made several Webster Groves residents more cautious about how the green space would be used.

Griffo said a university could rectify its position in the community, no matter how sullen. But she said it would require hard work and time.

“I think sometimes before it gets better, it’s going to get worse along the way,” Griffo said.

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