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Super Block Could Become Campaign Issue

October 27, 2014 By:Anne Marie Kilday

Local News

Battle lines were drawn for next spring’s West U City Council elections Monday, after more than a dozen angry residents complained about the council’s recent decision to create a “Super Block” for future municipal facilities.
Although West U Mayor Bob Fry started with a long, conciliatory statement about the city’s long-range master plan, residents urged the city council to “slow down” and allow for more citizen input. On October 13, the council approved a master plan to build future facilities on the block bordered by University, Auden, College and Amherst Sts.
Residents also complained about the city’s plan to move the city’s Public Works operations from the corner of Milton and College so that West University Baptist Church can build a new Youth Center. That plan would move the operations to the city’s old Recycling Center, on Dincans near Westpark.
More than a dozen West U residents complained that the council’s decision was made without a town hall meeting or a public hearing, while others suggested that the plan would benefit West University Baptist Church more than city residents.
Fry angered many in the standing-room only crowd when, close to the end of the council meeting, he stated that the city council had “spent a lot of time” on the master plan.
”We are not going to change this decision. The Super Block is done,” Fry said, to cries of “No, no.”
Fry then said, “This is an excellent campaign issue.”
Former Mayor Bob Kelly, who had organized some of the opposition to the plan, called out: “Count on it — it will be!”
Before hearing public comments, Fry tried to assuage concerns that the city was involved in a “land grab” or backroom deal with the Baptist Church. Fry specifically stated that the city of West U does not intend to use “eminent domain” to take any property away from homeowners.
He noted that the city council earlier this year began a “long-range master planning exercise” due to the age and predicted lifespan of certain city buildings.
He noted that the Library is 51 years old, the Senior/Community building is 73 years old, the Public Works Administration Building is 20 years old, and the Public Works maintenance facility is 60 years old.
“All of these facilities will need to be rebuilt or replaced in some fashion in the future,” Fry said.
As the council’s planning work was nearing completion, Fry said the city was notified by the Baptist Church that it had a donor who had offered $3 million to building a Youth Center.
But, the donor had two stipulations: the building was to be physically separate from the church’s other buildings, and work on the youth center had to start by the first quarter of 2015, Fry said.
When the church advised the city that it planned to build the new youth center on Amherst, next to the city hall parking lot, Fry said the council asked the city’s planning consultant Jeff Gerber, of PGAL Architects, to look at alternatives.
“Given the short time frame in which the Church had to make its decision, our decision to create the City super block and relocate the Public Works maintenance facility … became quite obviously the best alternative,” Fry said.
Residents clearly did not agree.
David Dutch, one of the few West U residents who spoke out against the Super Block two weeks ago, restated his concern that the Baptist Church was acquiring too much property in the center of West University Place.
“I’d like to ask the church to remember the Ten Commandments. ‘Thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s property,’” Dutch said, to loud applause.
Mayor Kelly lectured the council about their swift decision on the Super Block plan.
“This is not the way we do things,” Kelly said. The council should have held town hall meetings and taken the time to hear from residents, Kelly said.
“Take a deep breath, folks, pull back,” Kelly said. “Stop this whole thing and have citizen input.”
West U resident Brendan Riley agreed with Kelly.
“We just need to slow down. If you guys think this is a great idea, it’s probably a great idea,” Riley said. He warned, “There’s going to be a rising up of folks. Table this master plan. Don’t sell any city property immediately.”
Stan McCandless also agreed.
“It appears to me we have a Baptist Church Youth Center driving a policy the city has already made,” McCandless said.
West U resident Susan Asfelt said that it appeared the city was making decisions to help the Baptist Church, not the residents of West U. The deadline imposed by the donor “is not the taxpayers of West U’s problem,” she said.
Sisters Katherine and Ida Sweeney, who live at 3822 University, are concerned that the city wants to take their property.
“We would have to divulge to prospective buyers that the city would like to own the property. We think that’s not fair,” Katherine Sweeney said.
Sweeney said she was notified by “a letter dropped on our doorstep. This should have been brought before a town meeting. The whole thing lacks transparency.”
After the meeting, City Councilman Ed Heathcott defended his decision two weeks ago, to make the motion that the council approve the Super Block plan. Although Heathcott is a deacon at West University Baptist Church, he said he was “not aware” of the proposed Youth Center until the church brought it to the city’s attention.
“I was making a motion on behalf of the city. I do not feel like there was any conflict of interest,” Heathcott said. “We are talking about a concept that will be developed over a long period of time.”

48 Responses to “Super Block Could Become Campaign Issue”

  1. anonymous Says:

    Just to clarify the bigger picture and to put the Baptist church problem in context…
    The City plans to move Public Works (currently on Milton behind the Baptist church and the Library) to the City owned property on West Park (across the street from Goode Company Seafood). I think that is a good idea because the Public Works buildings are an eye-sore and the land could be put to better use.

  2. Mike Brem Says:

    We live on the corner of University and College in the proposed Super Block. We stayed on the sidelines for the most part, but there’s so much incorrect information floating around that I’m finally compelled to speak up.

    By way of background, when we first received the notice regarding the proposed Super Block, I sent an open records request to the City for all communications on the subject. I specifically asked for e-mails between it and the Church. The City responded promptly and here’s what I learned by reviewing those documents.
    At the risk of disagreeing with my good friend Brennan Reilly, the bad actor in this affair is the Church. Sometime last Spring, the Church approached the City with its plans to build a youth center on the lots it owns on Milton, closest to City Hall.

    Let’s be clear what this means. The Church proposed to build a very tall, two story structure directly behind the Sweeney’s and Olin’s homes. More than that, it proposed to do so on property that is zoned single family. The next step was to be the Church turning into parking lots the two properties it owns on University—between the Olin’s home and ours, as well as the lot behind our house. Again, properties zoned as single family and truly in the City’s “front door.” In other words, the Church wants to completely change the character of the west end of the 3800 blocks of University and Milton from the kind of homes that makes West U so special to an expanded Church campus.

    From my review of the documents, it was in response to this that City came up with Super Block plan to “protect” the City’s front door and the four private property owners in that area from the Church’s incursions.

    That said, the City is not without fault in all of this. But the blame that I place on the City—and I place it robustly—is the City’s lack of will of enforcing its zoning regulations against the Church. I attribute this failure to the all too cozy relationship between the City and the Church, undoubtedly driven by the Church’s success in placing its members on City Council.

    In short, I was quoted in the Village News as saying that the Church is the bad actor in all of this and that I’d prefer to have the City as a neighbor than the Church. Having had plenty of opportunity to consider these subjects in the last few weeks, I’m more convinced of that than ever. Unless the City develops the political will to enforce its zoning regulations against the Church, from the narrow point of view of a property owner in the disputed area, the proposed Super Block is the better of two less than perfect choices.

    • anonymous Says:

      Mike,
      I think you said Milton Street when you meant Amherst. The Baptist church plan #1 is to build the youth center on Amherst behind City hall. Plan #3, if the City sells the property, is to build the youth center on Milton behind the library.

  3. Anoynomous Says:

    It is JUST A STUPID DUMB PARKING LOT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. Anoynomous Says:

    Um in case you want to know I am 9 and I feel this way .Think about that.

  5. Anoynomous Says:

    I think the argument of how it all needed to be replaced anyways was a load of trash .Another extremely pathetic thing is that they think our library the HCPL won’t change that the kids will be able to walk from their school to where ? A church! Really this is another way for them to gain more customers by placing it right in by a school making it easier for people to just go there . Even if we do go to a new library it won’t be the same.

  6. Tina Says:

    It is irresponsible for the city to proceed with this “land swap” and “super block” without full disclosure and debate. Being strong-armed by the church is ridiculous. I’m confident that the members of WU Baptist want to be good neighbors and allow the city the time to properly weigh all options.

    I understand that the city has hired a consultant that has suggested the city “swap” the land where the current library and community buildings are but keep them in place for 10 years. This is a sham. Within those 10 years, the neighborhood will change- with many new residents coming in and old going out. The new residents will not have a clue about the future plan of the city until they wake up one day to the sound of the wrecking crew demolishing the library and community center.

    It’s all too sneaky.

  7. Aashish Pandya Says:

    I feel the city should allow at least 90 days for the public opinion before any decisions are made. I also feel as Councilman Heathcott should not be involved in any future voting as there is a potential conflict of interest. This is a decision that will permanently affect our cityscape and needs ample time, consideration, and public input. If the council rushes this, I feel this will certainly lead to angered residents and an entirely new council next election.

  8. nottinghamed Says:

    Mayor Kelly,
    How much of this is potentially reversible by a new city council in May? Just trying to get an idea how far down this path the city can go before this “republic’s” citizen’s ultimately do get to weigh in.

  9. nottinghamed Says:

    Couple of points:

    The church says they are potentially going to build the youth center on land they own Amherst that used to be residential houses (that they bought in the past I suppose). Aren’t those lots zoned residential then? How can the church have the right unilaterally to build a youth center on residential zoned land? We wouldn’t let them build a gas station there (I’d hope, but who knows with the sway they seem to have)?

    Also, moving public works to the Westpark location for a land swap with the church makes terrible economic sense. The Westpark land is in City of Houston and so (correct me if I’m wrong here), West U has to pay property taxes to City of Houston for that land (in perpetuity), while the land they would be giving to the church would continue to be untaxed. Seems better to sell the Westpark land and retain the existing public works footprint which is better for Heavy Trash days and more centrally located for the provision of services.

  10. Lucille Says:

    If the Public Works Operations are relocated to the Westpark-Dincans Property, won’t special security be needed to guard equipment during off hours?

  11. emetz Says:

    Just to reiterate, the city approached the church on this. This is not a land grab by the church. All the more reason to get all of this out publicly. This is not moving around the date for large trash day. This is something that merits public scrutiny as it will affect the center of town for decades.

  12. Concerned Citizen Says:

    This is one of a series of issues that are being discussed that impacts the look and feel of our city. The Town Center project had re-surfaced again and there is consideration of re-zoning some residential areas to commercial. These proposed changes are going on under the radar and the mayor seems hell bent on pushing this down our throats quickly. The fact that a commercial real estate developer is part of the Steering Committee on this project and could potentially benefit from the changes is a blatant conflict of interest and shows that our elected officials have no regard for the residents who pay taxes and who elected them.

  13. Brennan Reilly Says:

    To read more about the facilities master plan and view maps of the current and potential ownership of City property, go to http://www.stopsuperblock.org. Please click on the link to sign the petition electronically and email Council if you want them to call a time out to get public input.

  14. Madeline B. Says:

    Since common sense is no longer a factor in decision-making at City Hall, could special interests be at play here? Cozy relationships with consultants, architects, developers, contractors, etc. may need to be investigated.

  15. Larry Kelly Says:

    This action by the City Council is just amazing. I served 3 years on West U zoning and planning and we were constantly hammered by the unintended consequences of zoning acts. Blowing off serviceable buildings for a quick “trade” with the Baptist church is not in the best interest of the City.

  16. Lucille Says:

    I recall students going to the Library after dismissal from West U Elementary and Pershing to do homework. I wish I had thought of that when my kids were that age and I worked. I believe West U provides the building but the library is a Harris County Library. I don’t know the politics of libraries, but would hope nothing is done to jeopardize the present arrangement with the county, unless West U wants to get into the library business like Bellaire.

  17. D. Wells Says:

    I would hate to see the library and community center replaced by a parking lot.The community center has just been renovated, and we use it (and the library) several times a week. What a waste of money. We really need more information on the financial costs to the City, including lost revenue from the former recycling center property and residential property taken off the tax rolls. Why can’t West U Baptist build on their Bellaire property?

  18. vote the BUMS out Says:

    On a totally different note. I actually like the library. Very cool building that doesn’t look out of scale with the neighborhood (unlike some of the more recent building projects – rec center/police station/etc). I fully expect some bloated monstrosity to replace these smaller, functional, appropriate buildings. Here’s to West U . . . where if it’s not over done . . . it’s not done at all.

    One more thing. Parking. Has this gotten any better since West U placated the citizens and had all those meetings a few years back? Has anything actually been done? Anyone done any impact studies to see how this new mega block or church expansion will affect parking in the area. I can’t imagine with additional services and buildings that parking will get better (even if they build a lot). Now’s the time where West U should flex muscles and force the church to build a parking garage to get the Sunday Morning cars off of the streets – the church can then lease out or charge for parking during the week. Is it pretty? No. But if we are tearing down all the nice looking buildings and putting up ugly ones, the parking garage won’t be the only eye-sore. I’d gladly give the church $10 to park my SUV in a real parking spot when my kids are at the ball park.

  19. Lucille Says:

    We old timers remember when West U Baptist maintained a low profile. I wonder if Dr. Mayfield ever imagined how large the church would become.

  20. Miriam Says:

    Here’s another failure by Mayor Bob Fry to represent the West U residents’ interests. There has been no notice or knowlege to the Mayor’s constituents on this issue just like on the Weslayan Metro issue. Instead of hearing concerned residents’ comments and advocating for their interests, Mayor Fry states that it’s done. That’s the same thing he said on the Weslayan Metro issue until enough residents spoke up and demanded a reversal by putting forth a Proposition to Metro. Metro listened and changed the route.

  21. GirlScout Says:

    Can we get the church pastor there to answer specific questions? How can this be good for West U?. We lose a perfectly good public works facility, library, community center and sr. citizens center, four families lose their homes, West U loses significant tax base, will spend millions of our tax dollars on a new public works building, library, community center and sr. citizens center, buy four homes/lots. .Who will this benefit and who will profit? Follow the money.

    • Lucille Says:

      I can’t imagine any justification for tearing down the Public Works Administration Building on Amherst and then building another across the street. It is ideally located now to provide its services and looks brand new. Also, one of the houses needed to have a “super block” looks too expensive for the city to buy.

    • Just a kid who wants to get involved Says:

      Preach (get it )

  22. Bob Kelly, Former WU Mayor Says:

    I understand the City is planning a Town Hall meeting on this matter for Mon Nov 17. Plan to attend and make your views known.

    • Just a kid who wants to get involved Says:

      Hi I go here to the HCPL every day so I want to ask can a kid come and talk?

      • Anonymous Says:

        Yes, if you go early before the meeting starts and sign up to speak you will be allowed to speak when your turn comes.

        I remember at a city council meeting three years ago when the city was debating the town center issue (again) there was a fifth grader who talked and the mayor commended her for her arguments.

  23. vote the BUMS out Says:

    Funny how Mr. Kelly’s support of Fry seems to to have under gone a complete reversal during Mr. Fry’s tenure as Mayor. True colors show through: “This is not a democracy!” Fry is correct, but the optics of the quote are not good. Too bad we haven’t had a fair, non-biased, consistent, and level headed mayor for a number of years in our small city. Mr. Kelly and Mr. Fry both seem to shift with the prevailing winds of their own interests.

  24. FrankM@aol.com Says:

    From what I read in the pastors letter to members (urging them to keep their mouths shut), the Church was approached by the City of West U. According to Mayor Fry, the City was approached by the Church. Who is lying? Suggest we use Open Records Act to request copies of all communications between the City and the Church before they get together to get their stories straight and start deleting/destroying information.

  25. Mark Says:

    Residents should have the right to vote on this matter and the implications for our city after public hearings and full disclosure of conflicts of interest.

  26. Lucille Says:

    At least the members of the church will get a chance to vote on the land swap, etc. However, the members should be sure the ballot is secret. I speak from experience. Church members are inclined to vote the way their church leaders want them to vote. I would think the church and the city are all for a time out and a change in the decision makers. I don’t see the reason for a West U Super Block and a Baptist Super Block when all that separates the Blocks is a narrow street. Come on folks, the city and the church have been friends and co-existed for decades.

  27. Brennan Reilly Says:

    If you are interested in signing a petition urging the City Council to call a “time out” and hold public workshops to listen to citizen concerns and answer questions, please email me at brennanreilly@att.net and I will send you a copy of the petition.

  28. Bob Kelly, Former WU Mayor Says:

    Recent letter from WU Baptist Pastor to church members 1. Appears to be first notice to members of this matter, 2. Says nothing about any rush to build Youth Center, and 3. Says church members will get to vote on land swap.
    WU City Council and Ross are not shorting straight with our citizens.

  29. Bob Kelly, Former WU Mayor Says:

    The new City Council elected this coming May will be able under the City Charter to have a full investigation with the power to compel attendance of both parties to these transaction under oath in order to determine what the real situation is.

  30. Be involved it matters Says:

    Michael Ross runs the city and the council.

  31. Sharon D. Says:

    I attended the meeting last night with my husband and are concerned that our best interests are not being represented by elected officials. Could there be something here that is more than meets the eye? Before emails, minutes and other records are destroyed, residents should be able to review all communications relating to the Super Block.

    • Laura Torgerson Says:

      Sadly Sharon, this is just one of many things the City Council, Mayor and Zoning Committees are doing against resident interests and feedback. There is talk about changing the zoning status of several buildings on Kirby from residential to commercial. And, all done so quietly the even the people who live behind those buildings were barely given fair notice to attend the meeting about it. Nothing is transparent with these elected officials. I now recall why I did NOT vote for Mr. Fry.

  32. Quality of Life Says:

    It is clear that the residents of West University have been betrayed by our Mayor and City Council. Solid arguments were presented for adopting due process. No one who spoke favored going forward with plans at this time. Resident comments were not given serious consideration. Unfortunately, it appears our City government no longer represents its residents. The proposal will ruin neighborhoods and give the Church a foothold to expand and ruin additional neighborhoods over time. Clearly, the Church has its own “30 year plan”. Who is running our City? Where is our government?

    • Laura Torgerson Says:

      Since the Church did not have an opportunity to comment on these plans at the meeting it may be hasty to judge their motives. They do in fact own this property and are permitted to build on it as they and their congregation see fit. I do hope they work with their neighbors on their proposed plans. The City proposed a land swap that clearly makes sense to the church based on the location of those lots. I disagree with relocating several city buildings and am very curious at where they plan to put the library as its current location is ideal.

      • david Says:

        The library and senior center will be moved and rebuilt on the super block. The church will get the library and sr center property in a land swap and build a parking lot on the corner of Auden and rice. Won’t that be pretty? The Pastor of West U baptist has sent a letter out to his congregants discussing their master campus plans. He has told his members that some of the neighbors around the area are not happy with the plans and that the members should avoid talking about this subject with us since he feels we are disparaging in our remarks and actions. What a nice neighbor the Pastor is….

        • Lucille Says:

          Before the Community Building is leveled, I would like to mention two events that were held during historical times. During World War II, Red Cross classes educated residents in the art of dressing wounds received from expected enemy bombings. A welcome home party was held for William B. Royer Jr. who was one of sixty-six Americans captured by Iranian militants after the seizure of the U. S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. He and his mother, a resident of West U, attended and he expressed his gratitude for the support given her by the city. Also, I wonder if residents are aware of the services now provided there for all age groups in addition to seniors. It is in excellent condition and doesn’t deserve to be turned into a parking lot.

      • Lucille Says:

        The Harris County Library has been a fixture in West University Place for so long, it is taken for granted. Mrs. Sanders, whose family owned the property across the street that is now a park, was the librarian for many years. West U residents should make sure there is always a place for this institution enjoyed by all.

  33. biglawman.com Says:

    And with a smirk, Mayor Fry stated, “this is not a democracy; this is a republic”. Mayor Fry, you are a disgrace.

  34. david Says:

    I have many concerns, but the fact that the Church will acquire this property (which is 3 lots) at Milton and College, will bring their holdings to 14 lots in the city center. Never mind that large amount of tax revenue lost, the big problem is they want a super campus in the middle of tiny little west U. They care nothing about the neighbors.

  35. Lucille Creekmore Gallman Says:

    I would be asking questions about the mission of a Youth Center and the impact on West U. Also, I always appreciated the Heavy Trash Days as a really neat service. I sure wouldn’t have been able to haul my stuff to the proposed new location. Things have worked so well, why change them? Are the people who appear to have a lot of influence on the folks that officially run the city, residents? What exactly is their vision of West U thirty years down the road? I was baptized in the West U Methodist Church in the 1940s. It is good that they don’t have expansion plans. When World War II broke out, my dad along with many others living in a young West U enlisted. I was four years old and still remember him telling me to take care of West University Place. The original settlers of your nice town were very protective. I have to comment, that during that war, the support the West U Methodist and Baptist Churches provided to those left behind was superb and appreciated to this day.

  36. Terri Koehler Says:

    I am astounded by two things. First, the Mayor and City Council made a decision of great and lasting magnitude without due diligence. Second, Council member Heathcott cannot see that his participation in the Council deliberations and vote on this issue is a conflict of interest, or at the very least has the appearance of impropriety.

  37. Laura Torgerson Says:

    This is another example of the lack of transparency and quite frankly, the lack of ethics, on the part of West U City Council. It the Super Block is such a brilliant plan, then why rush it? Properly inform residents, have a town meeting, have a discussion and actually listen to people’s legitimate concerns. Their motives are not pure.

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