Olde Towne East resident Ann Heffernan addresses the Board of Zoning Adjustments while developer Brian Higgins, foreground, looks on.
The Columbus Board of Zoning Adjustments (BZA) met on March 25 to consider a tabled proposal for zoning variances that would allow a massively-sized, massively-unpopular luxury apartment block at 122 Parsons Avenue. Developers rolled out the AstroTurf to give the appearance of support for the project despite opponents outnumbering supporters nearly 10-1 at the meeting. Further research by the Columbus Free Press suggests that the proposed development has the backing of powerful forces in city politics and business to move forward despite the wishes of Olde Towne East residents. Representing the development consortium, Brian Higgins of Arch City Development spoke first. Higgins had kept a low profile at the two previous meetings he had attended, appearing to be the guy who just holds the pictures while Michael Woods of Woods Development LLC put a public face on the project. Woods was not present for this meeting although the third partner, Timothy Galvin was identified as being quietly present, whispering to Higgins while other speakers were at the podium. Higgins brought a modified proposal that would only seek three rather than the previous eight variances originally applied for and tabled at the previous BZA meeting. Higgins spoke of engaging the community at two meetings with members of the Olde Towne East Neighborhood Association (OTENA) on March 10 and 17. According to some residents, at least one of these meetings was not well publicized or well-attended and the suspicion is that was deliberate. OTENA's general membership meeting voted overwhelmingly against the proposal by a margin of more than three to one. Higgins was unwilling to add ground floor retail to the plan, which many area business owners desired, claiming this was not in his business plan. Higgins is the secretary of a non-profit development group called the Parsons Avenue Merchants Association, which promotes greater access to retail on Parsons, although the group's focus seems to be further South on Parsons closer to Nationwide Children's Hospital. Nationwide Children's Hospital provides funding and support for the Parsons Avenue Merchants Association, according to the latter's website. They are joined in this support by the City of Columbus, the United Way, Huntington Bank, The Columbus Foundation, and the Finance Fund according to the website. Higgins confirmed under oath the completion of phase one and two environmental assessments of the site and the previously reported presence of arsenic contamination. Higgins was supported later at the podium by Near East Area Commission Chairwoman Kathleen Bailey, who again spoke in favor of the development. The few speakers in favor of the project all seemed to have been associated with Bailey including resident Kathy Webb who was admonished by the board chair later in the meeting for heckling one of the anti-development speakers. The majority of residents who spoke were against the development, as were the over 40 people who attended the meeting but did not speak. Long-time area resident Ann Heffernan, who lives next to the property, spoke against the project and promised to bring legal action against it should it pass. She was followed by her attorney, Scott Dewhirst, who raised serious legal questions as to the validity of the variance proposal. Dewhirst questioned how there can be economic hardship to the developers when they do not yet own the property and thus have no property rights. The final speaker was area resident and business owner Bobby Silver, who presented a large printed photograph of over 70 people lining Parsons Avenue in protest of the proposed development. Silver spoke against the proposal and has been organizing opposition to it. He plans to continue. The board called the question to a vote, and after a quiet huddle all voted in favor of it although they uniformly claimed they felt divided on the issue, just as the Near East Area Commission had been a few weeks earlier. The earlier Commission vote required a tie-breaker from Chairwoman Bailey, who is otherwise not a voting member.