November 28, 2020

Webster Groves City vote Tuesday may allow Webster University to use land at Eden

On Tuesday, August 20, the Webster Groves City Council’s vote on a conditional use permit (CUP) may allow Webster University to use property at Eden Theological Seminary, north of Lockwood Avenue.

The July 16 public hearing regarding Webster University’s request to use Eden’s property sparked a tense discussion between Webster Groves city council members, residents and university representatives. Approximately 40 people attended the public hearing, which lasted four hours and ended close to 11:30 p.m.

Residents and several councilmembers were concerned about the university’s future intentions and the potential effects the university’s expansion across Lockwood Avenue would have on traffic, parking and the community’s character.

Councilmember Kathy Hart expressed a concern that the university would continue expansion on Eden’s campus and purchase residential homes near Eden.

“I’m remembering years ago when Garden Avenue (the location of Webster University’s garage, parking lots and Webster Village Apartments) was a neighborhood,” Hart said at the July 16 meeting. “I think we’ve all seen how those CUPs there eliminated those neighborhoods. How can I be assured that this CUP to move north is not going to go further and start eliminating those neighborhoods?”

Webster University’s CUP application, if approved, would allow the university to use two properties and demolish another on Eden’s campus. Last spring, the application received public comment at city plan commission meetings before it was brought to city council on July 16 for a first and second reading. The third and final reading for the bill is scheduled for August 20. At that time, the city will add any additional amendments it wishes and vote.

The university’s requested uses for property at Eden are as follows:

  • Use of the Luhr Library (475 E. Lockwood Ave.) for offices and administrative support space, some equipment storage and as a new home for the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence (SPICE) club — which would include a tournament room. The building would have 40 to 50 employees.
  • The demolishment of the White House (411 E. Lockwood Ave.), which would be replaced with green space and landscaping.
  • Use of the Wehrli Center (4 Joy Ave.) to be used as an office and meeting room for the university’s alumni association and faculty senate. It would have one or two full-time employees.

Traci Pupillo, an attorney with Carmody MacDonald who represents Webster University, said at the July 16 meeting that the proposed ordinance puts currently vacant buildings to good use.

Tom Sepe, resident on the 600 block of Edgar Road, said it makes sense for the university to use property at Eden because Eden’s enrollment has decreased.

“Sounds to me like a marriage made in heaven,” Sepe said. “They’re (Webster University) not taking over the town.”

Sepe’s remarks received applause from the room.

Pupillo added that the university would need the city’s permission to use more of Eden’s property in the future.

“In order to use property, Webster University has to get a CUP (from the city). It can not use property without that,” Pupillo said.

She said the university’s 2012 Master Plan doesn’t show further use of Eden’s campus. Hart said she thought the university’s future plans for its campus was a fluid and evolving process, and that it’s possible for the 2012 Master Plan to be replaced with another plan in the future.

“My concern is, and I’m sure the residents’ concerns are, how do you stop the continued purchasing of residential homes and when is it going to end,” Hart said.

Hart’s statement at the July 16 meeting also received applause from the room.

Webster University Chief Financial Officer Greg Gunderson has previously commented on the residential properties currently owned by the university. At an October meeting between city council members, and university and Eden representatives, Gunderson said the university waits to be approached by residents selling their homes and does not approach sellers.

“We purchase (residential homes) 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 said at the October meeting.

According to the St. Louis County Assessor’s Office, Webster University owns 20 taxable properties, or residential homes, in Webster Groves — 11 of which are on Catalina Avenue behind the college’s University Center.

Council member Greg Mueller said he wants an assurance that Webster University won’t decide tomorrow it wants a residential buffer north of Lockwood.

Gunderson said the university has been approached by residents selling their home north of Lockwood and the university has declined those offers.

Traffic and Parking Concerns

One resident who was unable to attend submitted a video to the council which showed parking congestion in Webster Groves.

Michael Grosch, president of Webster University’s Student Government Association (SGA), spoke during the public hearing and said university students are not the only students who park in Webster Groves.

Transparency

Pupillo said the university has been criticized in the past for a lack of transparency when it comes to its transactions with Eden.

“We disagree with that. We think it’s unfounded,” Pupillo said at the July 16 public hearing.

Councilmember Ann Tolan said she has a differing opinion on the university’s transparency. Several Webster Groves residents questioned the university’s transparency during the July 16 public hearing.

Janet Pirozzi read a letter her husband Jack had written because he could not attend the meeting due to travel. In the letter, Jack and Janet Pirozzi said they have nothing against Eden or the university. Janet Pirozzi said she doesn’t feel it is in the best interest of the community for the university to cross Lockwood. She added, “both institutions have lacked integrity and transparency in this matter.”

“This has been a long three and a half year process,” Janet Pirozzi read at the meeting. “We feel that this issue is important to our community. And the outcome of this controversy has warranted all the effort, time and energy which bring all of us to this meeting.”

Katie Maxwell, vice president of SGA, spoke during the July 16 public hearing. She said believes the university and its students are good for the community and the community’s character.

“All students who attended the city plan commission meeting (which discussed the proposed bill) were shaken and hurt by the sheer hostility and comments by some community members,” Maxwell said. “We (Webster University students) eat here. We shop here. We live here.”

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