Contentious zoning hearing forces further discussion on Webster University expansion

Natalie Martinez/ The Journal More than 80 people crammed into Webster Grove's City Council's Chambers on Sept. 2 to discuss the city's proposed educational zoning.
Natalie Martinez/ The Journal More than 80 people crammed into Webster Grove’s City Council’s Chambers on Sept. 2 to discuss the city’s proposed educational zoning.

Every chair and available nook in the Webster Groves City Council’s chamber was filled.
More than 80 students, faculty and administrators from Webster University, Nerinx Hall and Eden Theological Seminary, along with residents, hoped to speak for or against the city’s proposed educational zoning. The proposed zoning could limit Webster University’s growth. It could also halt Eden’s ability to collaborate with other institutions, and limit Nerinx’s future.

Through a crowded doorway, heads peeked over shoulders, listening in as Webster Groves Councilmember Greg Mueller stressed to Webster University President Elizabeth Stroble that the city council’s job was to ensure the vision of Webster Groves and its residents is delivered.

“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.

Eden and the university’s administration voiced the concerns of their institutions at the Webster Groves City Council meeting, on Sept. 2 . Stroble, along with Eden President David Greenhaw and Eden attorney Gary Feder, voiced concerns about Ordinance 8851, a proposal that could end Webster University’s plans for expansion and a 50 year working relationship with Eden Theological Seminary. 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.

“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.”

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.

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. The proposed zoning code also sets requirements for parking spaces and green space, property dimensions and accessory uses. Thirty percent of the campus would have to be parking, and another 30 percent would be green space.

Stroble and Greenhaw echoed Feder later in the evening. 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 educational zoning fair to all institutions.

Issues with Masterplan process

Stroble stressed the importance of the 2012 master plan, which could be hampered by the proposed zoning changes. She said the parking and green space requirements alone would make the construction of the Interdisciplinary Science Building impossible.

“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.”

Stroble, Greenhaw and Feder voiced concern over the ordinance’s master plan wording. They said they worried it gave the city council complete control. 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 completely.

Feder said the language of the masterplan made it seem as if the city council had absolute discretion when it came to denying, approving or amending submitted master plans. Stroble, later in the evening, said the university would not feel comfortable submitting their master plan under the new ordinance, and currently does not feel confident in the master plan process offered by the city.

Ordinance would ‘strangle’ Eden collaborations

Greenhaw said the proposed zoning would completely hamper Eden’s opportunity to collaborate with any university, not just Webster University. He requested the city not restrict Eden from partnership opportunities based on their relationship with the university.

“You’ve taken our market for partnerships and strangled it,” Greenhaw said.

Councilmember Tori Hunt expressed her worry that if the city council bowed to Eden’s requests, the Eden property would become an “office park.” Greenhaw said the idea that Eden would become an office park was offensive to him. He stressed the Eden property would only be used for educational purposes..

“We’re not asking to put a Walmart in,” Greenhaw said.

Councilmember Debi Salberg said the city did not want Eden to become “Webster University – North.” She said she felt as if the seminary was on its way to becoming an annex of the university.

Greenhaw said Eden is not and will never be a department or annex of the university, but would like to continue their long standing relationship.

Crossing Lockwood and Residential Properties

Councilmember Kathy Hart asked both Stroble and Greenhaw to present details and numbers on the collaborations between campuses during their Q&A segments. Stroble replied that before the university’s Emerson Library was built, every Webster student crossed Lockwood to use the Luhr Library.

Several councilmembers shared concerns about students crossing Lockwood throughout the meeting. Councilmember Anne Tolan said students crossing Lockwood was becoming a safety concern and that people cross the street dangerously. She also said she was concerned about the influx of traffic on Lockwood. She asked Greenhaw for specific numbers of how many students cross Lockwood a day.

Throughout the evening, Mueller gave examples of several homes purchased outside of the university’s original footprint. He noted they were not included in the master plan. He said the inclusion of these homes would help the city council in their amendments to the ordinance. Stroble said said she did not feel as if the master plan needed to include private residences, as the plan outlines an educational plan.

“Within the context of what we do here, zoning, it is relevant,” Mueller said.

Stroble asked Mueller if the city council was contemplating an amendment to the proposed zoning ordinance that would include residential houses owned by the university in educational zoning. Mueller said he could not speak for the council, but considered himself one council member who would be for that motion.

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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