Unique Process Has Guided Weinland Park Development Proposal
A new proposal for 50 E. Seventh Ave. was presented to the University Impact Review Board (UIDRB) last month. The plan calls for replacing several two and three-story apartment buildings with a six-story, 150-unit mixed-use building.
Although the June 24 meeting marked the first time the proposal was heard by the review board, the developer of the building had already participated in about half a dozen in-person and virtual meetings to discuss the project with a group of concerned Weinland Park neighbors.
Those meetings were arranged by the Weinland Park Civic Community Association and facilitated by Kathleen Fox, a neighbor of nearby Dennison Place with a background in negotiation and alternative dispute resolution who has volunteered her time to serve as a mediator throughout the process.
The goal is to “channel the energy [of the neighborhood] toward solutions instead of toward opposition,” Fox said, explaining that the idea is to systematically work through the neighbors’ concerns about the project and figure out how they can best be resolved.
Sometimes that can be accomplished through design changes. For example, the developer of the project – Illinois-based Peerless Development – agreed to shorten the building by burying some of the parking, and also to shift the taller parts of it away from nearby houses (the overall unit count also decreased from 188 to 150, with a 70-space parking garage).
Other times, though, the neighbors’ concerns had more to do with how the building will be operated once it is built, like where delivery and trash trucks will go, or how the company will respond to loud tenants.
Fox also cited a concern about the loss of on-street parking, something that the developer does not directly control.
“Peerless agreed to talk with city about the street parking,” she said. “Some of these things, [it’s about] helping the neighbors understand who makes the decision, and getting the developer to be helpful with it.”
The end product of the meetings facilitated by Fox was a memorandum of understanding (MOU), a document that lays out points of agreement between the developer and the civic association, as well as a framework for how the two groups will continue to communicate as the project moves through the approval process and is eventually constructed and occupied.
Included in that MOU is a height limit of 70 feet, some general design guidelines (like a pedestrian-friendly facade along East Seventh Avenue), and a commitment to hire minority businesses when possible. Also included is a commitment to provide relocation assistance to tenants of the existing apartment buildings before the start of construction, and a promise that 20% of the new building’s units will meet the affordability requirements laid out by the city’s tax abatement policies.
Although the project will still need to get design approval from the UIDRB (the last meeting was just an initial review, the developer will need to return for a vote), neighborhood leaders are encouraged that many of the biggest issues have been resolved at such an early stage in the approval process.
Tanya Long, the president of the civic association, said that many neighbors weren’t happy with the initial proposal from Peerless Development, but that “once the committee was formed and we ironed out the kinks and personality clashes, I felt Peerless acted far above most developers in accommodating as many requests as possible and still being able to come up with a viable solution for everyone, including Peerless.”
“It was a passionate subject with a lot of tensions,” she said, adding that Fox’s involvement was key. “She guided the process along smoothly and with respect and diplomacy. I really appreciated that she contacted each of the key players individually to reach a consensus on how we would drive the process going forward…everything fell into place after that.”
Could it Work in Other Neighborhoods?
Although the exact path that development proposals take in Columbus varies by neighborhood, typically a developer will start by making a presentation to a commission or zoning committee. They will get feedback from that group, then return in a month with a revised proposal. Those initial meetings are rarely well-attended, and tend to be focused mostly on which zoning variances the project will need to secure, although sometimes they also touch on other issues, like the overall size and shape of the proposal.
Subsequent meetings can then stretch over the course of months, often without a clear sense that the two sides are getting closer to an agreement, or even addressing the most pressing concerns.
Review boards like the UIDRB or the city’s historic architectural review commissions spend a lot of time discussing the exterior design of a building and how it fits in architecturally with the surrounding neighborhood, often drilling down into detailed discussions about the size of a window sill or the distinct properties of different siding materials. Other issues – like the potential for a large patio and pool to create a noisy atmosphere that might be disruptive to neighbors – don’t get as much attention.
Fox is convinced that investing more time in the facilitation of productive conversations between a developer and the neighborhood – before the project is even brought before a review board or commission, if possible – will lead to better development and happier neighbors.
She acknowledges, though, that the whole process relies on the participation of what she called a “forward-thinking” developer who wants to “be a good neighbor.” Certainly not all developers are willing to put in the extra time and effort that such a process requires.
Joseph Patrick, director of development for Peerless Development, told the UIDRB last month that his team got “great feedback” from the neighborhood, and that the many early meetings with them “really informed how this building has evolved from our initial concepts.”
Brett Kaufman, the founder and CEO of Columbus-based Kaufman Development, recently completed a years-long – and at times contentious – review process with the Victorian Village Commission for the company’s plan to redevelop the former IBEW building on West Second Avenue.
When asked if he saw potential in a mediator-led process like the one the East Seventh Avenue development has gone through, Kaufman said that he did. “Yes, I think something like that could be helpful if done properly…I do think it’s very hard to get everyone to arrive at a consensus,” he said.
Fox has also been involved in helping to craft MOU’s for two developments in Dennison Place – one with Vision Communities for Makely Place, and the other with Subtext for the King and High redevelopment. The Makely Place project was eventually supported by the Dennison Place Neighborhood Association and is now open, while the King and High proposal also gained support after many neighborhood meetings, and will be heading back to the UIDRB for a likely vote of approval later this month.
“I have yet to be involved in a negotiation where 100% of people involved are 100% happy…there are trade-offs for the neighborhood to think about, and for the developer to think about,” Fox cautioned, although she is hopeful that the process she helped to lead in Weinland Park and Dennison Place could be replicated in other neighborhoods
“I’m trained as a facilitator, negotiator and mediator, but there are other people who are as well…it can be scaled up,” she said. “I think that the city might want to look at how to set up this kind of process for other neighborhoods, because at the end of the day, we need more housing in the community.”
“There’s always concern in neighborhoods about change,” Fox added. “And in order to have a positive conversation about that, you need to approach it in a way that people understand they can work toward reasonable solutions for those concerns.”
Editor’s note (7/9/21): This article was updated with the correct number of parking spaces proposed for the project (70, not 123)