Webster University and Eden Theological Seminary sued the City of Webster Groves last week. The university and seminary allege the city unlawfully denied the university’s request to use property it had purchased from Eden. Webster had hoped to use two buildings on Eden’s property for university activities and demolish a third.
The university and Eden have asked the court to assess the legality of the city’s denial. If a judge finds the denial unlawful, then the institutions will ask the city to overturn the decision. If the city does not overturn the decision, the university and Eden will seek to collect damages.
An attorney for the university and seminary said his clients believe damages could exceed $5 million, around what the university paid Eden for the three buildings and land.
“To me, it’s the city saying ‘we know you bought a house on this street, but we’re not going to let you move into it because we don’t like you and we don’t want you to live there,’” said Gerard Carmody, the university and seminary’s attorney.
The lawsuit is the latest development in a dispute between the institutions and the city. Since the university announced its intentions to expand across Lockwood Avenue in 2009, it has faced resistance from a group of Webster Groves residents and the City Council.
If a settlement is not reached, a ruling against the city for $5 million would represent 23.1 percent of all the revenue the city predicted it would collect in fiscal year 2013.
For Eden, the sale and lease of its property has allowed the seminary to generate revenue. In September 2012, Eden President David Greenhaw told The Journal the sale or lease of Eden property would allow the seminary to reduce the size of its campus to fit its declining student enrollment.
Conversely, Webster University’s desire to expand its campus boundaries and create more space for university activities would be hindered if the court ruled in the city’s favor.
Kim Griffo, executive director of the International Town and Gown Association, said after the stakeholders get over the initial shock of the lawsuit, they will usually to resolve the issues.
“People will listen differently now (that the university has sued),” Griffo said. “(The stakeholders) have a meter running now. It’s costing them substantial dollars now.”
The university and Eden applied for a conditional use permit (CUP) in March 2013, which would have enabled Webster to repurpose two buildings on Eden’s campus for university activities and demolish another. The university sought to use the Wehrli Center as a meeting space for the alumni and faculty, as well as to demolish the White House. The university also sought to repurpose the Luhr Library as a home for the university chess team and office space for Information Technology personnel.
In 2010, the university finalized the purchase and lease of various properties on Eden’s campus for $5.3 million. These properties are the Wehrli Center, Luhr Library, the White House and 5.3 acres of land.
The permit was approved by the Webster Groves Plan Commission and forwarded to City Council. On Aug. 20, City Council voted 4-3 to turn down the university’s application for a conditional use permit.
At the Aug. 20 City Council meeting, Mayor Gerry Welch said Webster University’s long-term expansion plans presented a a greater concern than just the three buildings. Welch, who voted in favor of the application, said the community was concerned about the university’s purchases of several residential properties in Webster Groves. The university owns 20 taxable residential properties in the city.
Welch said Webster University’s CUP for use of the Eden property was more likely to be approved if the university assured the community it would stop buying properties.
“All your (Webster University) Board of Trustees would have to do is pass some sort of policy that says you weren’t going to buy any more residential homes, and you would make everybody in this community feel a lot more comfortable,” Welch said at last August’s City Council meeting. “What you are hearing is a lot of people being really upset about the university, because they are heading into residential neighborhoods. You can stop that.”
Shortly after it was announced Webster would purchase properties and land from Eden in 2009, a community group called Residents for Webster Groves was formed. The group opposes the university crossing Lockwood Avenue and has stated its opposition at various City Council meetings.
Originally, the university had hoped to build a 10,000-15,000 feet addition on the Luhr Library. This addition would have housed the university’s science department. However, the City Plan Commission denied Webster’s request in April 2010.
The university released new plans in 2012 for the Eden property as part of its 10-year master plan. The university no longer sought to place the science department in the Luhr Library. Instead, the university said the library would house Information Technology personnel. The Wherli Center would be converted into a meeting place for alumni and faculty. The university also said it would not turn the 4.3 acres of green space it owned at Bompart and Lockwood avenues into a ballfield or parking space, but instead use it for passive purposes.
The intentions for the green space had been an issue for some Webster Groves residents. Eden disclosed in June 2012 the university had the right of first refusal for 7.5 acres of green space at Bompart and Lockwood. As part of the first-refusal agreement, if either school sold property, it would have to first offer to sell said property to the other school.
On Sept. 4, 2012, City Council passed Ordinance 8753, which allowed Eden to sell or lease 11.8 acres of land to 10 vendors, including Webster University. The ordinance placed restrictions on the sale or lease of Eden property. Vendor space on Eden’s campus is limited to 5,000 square feet and a vendor can not employ more than 15 people at the property. The university and Eden both opposed the ordinance’s approval.