Super Block Could Become Campaign Issue

October 27, 2014

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.”