29 June 2014

More than 50 residents and business owners packed a Board of Zoning Adjustments hearing on Tuesday night February 25th group seeking seven different zoning variances needed to build an upscale forty unit apartment complex at 122 Parsons avenue. The hearing was the last green light needed by the development group to push the project forward over a groundswell of opposition from within the neighborhood.

The hearing began with the lead developer, Michael Woods of Woods Development Group, being asked to name his actual partners in the project, not just their corporate identities. The identities of the owners of the interlocking maze of development companies caused the Board Chairman to recuse himself and leave the hearing room at once. The chairman claimed he did business with one of the owners, Brian Higgins, and could not legally be involved. The ownership of these development companies was detailed in a previous Columbus Free Press article which can be read here

The board was left with just three members present and in a position where a unanimous vote would be required to grant a variance. All speakers both for and against the proposed development were required to make their comments under oath. Information came to light during the initial presentation by Michael Woods that had not been stated at a previous Near East Area Commission meeting where the proposal had advanced to this stage after much contention and a split vote that required a tie-breaking vote be cast by the Commission Chairwoman Kathleen Bailey.

Woods claimed the variance was needed for higher residential density in order to offset the cost of environmental remediation of the site, which he claimed is a brownfield. The site had been a carpet warehouse that burned down in one of the largest fires the neighborhood had seen. No evidence that the lot is actually a brownfield, plan for remediation, or description of the environmental problems was offered by Woods nor was there any mention of a plan to tap federal funds under the EPA's brownfield remediation grant program.

Woods further explained that lenders he was in discussion with were not willing to consider granting a loan for a project of lower residential density or a mixed use project with ground floor retail. The current planning document for the area, the Olde Towne Quarter Economic Development Strategy, was adopted by the Columbus City Council in 2010 and lists “Support mixed-use development for all key infill sites to include retail and services on the ground floor and office or residential on the upper floors,” as a key policy point.

Only a single person, Near East Area Commission Chairwoman Kathleen Bailey, spoke in favor of the proposed variance, claiming that she had spoken with some young professionals thinking of moving to the area who liked the older feel of the neighborhood but “wanted something new.” This was contradicted by two subsequent speakers, Roxy Brown and Shannon Lies, who identified as young professionals living in the area. Both were against the project. Brown lives adjacent to the cite in the same house she grew up in “like my mother before me.” Brown continued by saying “This will not work and I invite anyone here to my yard to see.”

Bailey also told the board that the 2010 strategy document was only guidelines. Bailey's name appears on the document as part of the working group that created it.

The speakers against began with Anne Heffernan, who lives behind the planned project and referred to the variance as an attempt at “backdoor rezoning,” receiving resounding applause from the audience. Heffernan had spoken at the Near East Area Commission against the project and included her statements there to objections to the variance based on the height, maneuverability in alleys, setbacks and street trees. She asked that her comments be entered into the record at that time and her comments were not transmitted in Commissioner Bailey's report to the board.

Following Heffernan, area resident Henry Schwartz, who is landlord to a number of Parsons Avenue businesses, presented the board with a petition signed by over 350 people against the development as designed.

Resident Victor John, who lives just outside the 150 foot notification radius of the project, stated that it was questionable as to whether all those inside the notification radius were, in fact, notified. He claimed he learned of the project at a civic association meeting in January when “they were well on their way to pushing this through.” Andrea Studabaker, who lives closer to the proposed development than any other person said that it would have a "terrible impact" on her life. Studabaker also claimed she had received no notice of the proposed development before the Near East Side Area Commission meetings.

After more speakers, Zoning Board member Michael Jones invited Michael Woods to ask the board to table the proposal until the next available meeting and work with residents on their concerns about building height, green space, maneuverability, historical character and other concerns before re-addressing the project at the next available meeting. Woods agreed and after the tabling Commissioner Bailey rushed to his side to help deflect questions and criticism from residents. Area residents vowed to continue their opposition to the project as proposed.