Council Listens, Delays Super Block

November 17, 2014

A majority of the West U City Council agreed Monday to conduct a citizen survey and to seek additional legal counsel on the creation of the controversial so-called Super Block

The council also agreed to suspend city staff’s efforts to seek bids on city-owned properties included in a long-range master plan for municipal facilities.

Mayor Pro Tem Susan Sample, Councilman Dick Yehle and Councilwoman Joan Johnson agreed, in effect, to delay any immediate plans to proceed with their mid-October decision to approve a long-range facilities Master Plan that included potential real estate transactions with West University Baptist Church.

At the start of the meeting, Sample apologized “for what appeared to be rushing through a deal” when the council approved the master plan last month.

The council decided to delay the so-called Super Block — now rebranded as a City Center — after dozens of West U residents filled the Community Center in two town hall meetings Monday afternoon and evening.

Mayor Bob Fry, who is out of the country on vacation, and Councilman Ed Heathcott did not attend the meeting. Heathcott, who earlier made the motion to approve the long-range master plan, is a deacon at the Baptist Church and has recused himself from any future votes.

The council’s decision came after two heated meetings in which they were threatened with a recall, accused of “corruption,” faulted for a lack of “transparency,” and berated for not listening to residents.

The council scheduled the two Town Hall meetings to give West U residents more information about a long-range master plan to create a campus of municipal buildings on the block bordered by University, Amherst, Auden and College.

Jeff Gerber, chief executive officer of PGAL Architects, explained that the process to come up with a long-range plan for West U’s municipal facilities actually began in 2006. Gerber took the blame for coming up with the “Super Block” name for the long-range plan, as city officials on Monday started referring to the facilities plan as a “City Center.”

The 2006 effort was revived by the current city council last March, when they contracted with PGAL for an updated long-range facilities plan.

Gerber said that “sometime last summer,” West U Baptist Church notified the city that it was considering building a new Youth Center on property that the church owns on Amherst. Because of the city’s planning exercise, West U officials asked leaders at the church to “hold off” on the construction of the new Youth Center until the city’s long-range plan was fully developed. Church officials initially planned to start construction on the center late this year or in early 2015.

The “Super Block” proposal approved by the council originally proposed a real estate transaction where the church would “trade” property it now owns on Amherst for the city-owned Public Works maintenance and operations center at Milton and College.

The plan also provided that the maintenance and operations side of Public Works would be moved to the old Recycling Center property on Dincans.

Since the council’s vote in mid-October, the church has said that it will not start construction of the new Youth Center until April 2015.

The plan also proposed that the city of West U would eventually buy four privately owned homes on University Blvd. The city has consistently said it would never use “eminent domain” to acquire those properties.

Sample and Councilmembers Joan Johnson and Dick Yehle all reiterated their positions that the long-term master plan no longer includes any immediate changes to the city’s library, senior center or Community Building.

The decision about the library, senior center and Community Building seems to have calmed many opponents of the long-range plan, but several residents continued to express concerns about the expansion of West U Baptist Church.

An anonymous donor has pledged $3 million for the construction of a new Youth Center to serve the church’s Launch Ministry for middle school and high-school students.

City Attorney Alan Petrov tried to explain that court decisions, as well as state and federal laws, limit cities’ abilities to prohibit or limit churches’ religious activities. Petrov said that cities could enforce zoning regulations, such as height limits, setbacks and construction codes. The council decided to seek further legal research on the issue of a city’s powers to limit church activities.

West U resident Frank Vargas insisted that the city of West U should limit the church’s expansion. He said that residential property owners are forced to pay higher taxes when churches expand. “I am asking the council to get to work on stopping the growth of these churches. Every time a church buys a new piece of land, we lose taxes,” Vargas said.

West U Realtor Heidi Dugan agreed. “To me, this looks like we’re being bullied by the church,” Dugan said. “You have total control over what they can build there.”

Other residents suggested that the council should not move the Public Works operations to the city-owned land at Dincans and Westpark.

Realtor Larry Kelly said that the Dincans property could become very valuable real estate; if a developer decided to build a multi-family high rise there. “It may be worth $10 million. The Dincans property has a higher and better use than garbage trucks,” Kelly said.

Many residents complained that the city council had acted too quickly, and without transparency, in approving the long-range master plan last month.

Brandy Wolf said, “Frankly, this whole thing doesn’t smell very good.” I don’t know whether the urgency of the church is the biggest problem,” Wolf said. “If this truly is a good idea, then the church can wait.”

Former Mayor Linda Lewis urged fellow West U residents not to be fearful of change. “The changes that have been made are genuinely good changes,” Lewis said. “I don’t disagree that the council should have undertaken a master plan effort, but why pursue change for change’s sake,” Lewis said.

The crowd at the evening town hall session was a little more heated, and vociferous. At one point, a number of West U residents jeered and booed a Bellaire resident who tried to caution West U about trying to stop a church’s expansion. The Bellaire woman said she and her neighbors had tried — unsuccessfully — to stop the construction of the St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church on church on Mulberry St. in Bellaire.

West U resident Franz Brotzen-Smith was cheered, however, when he suggested a recall of the West U City Council. Calling the Super Block “a disaster for West U,” Franz suggested the council had been “secretly pushing the Super Block. Brotzen-Smith specifically criticized Mayor Fry and Heathcott, and called for their resignations. Brotzen-Smith also suggested a recall election, . “Their power was given to them by the voters. And the residents of West U stand firmly and overwhelmingly against the Super Block,” Franz said.

West U resident Fawaz Hashmi accused the council of corruption. “This is corruption. There is no denying it,” Hashmi said. “They are not building a church. This is a sham. This is corruption.”

Yehle responded by saying that none of the council members “has a stake” in the church’s construction plans.

West U resident David Dutch, who has been an outspoken opponent of the city’s long-range plan, attended the meeting and thanked council members for meeting with him personally to discuss the issue.