Split Commission Backs Washington Ave. Housing

WHEELING – A sharply divided Wheeling Planning Commission voted 4-3 Monday to recommend rezoning a large portion of Washington Avenue so Wheeling Jesuit University can build a 36-unit apartment complex for graduate students near its campus.

On one side of the debate was commission member and former Councilman Barry Crow, who believes the additional housing is crucial for the university’s growth. On the other was commission member Thomas McCullough, who opposes the plan and at one point called Crow’s position “short-sighted” and “misleading.”

After questioning WJU and its developer, Double J Realty, on specifics of their proposal, and hearing from several neighborhood residents who oppose the plan, commission members voted 4-3 in favor of rezoning Washington Avenue, from Interstate 70 to Alice Avenue, from R-1 single-family residential to R-4 high-density residential. It took a vote from acting Chairman Thomas Mauck Jr. – standing in for absent Chairman Howard Monroe – to break an initial 3-3 deadlock.

In addition to Mauck, commissioners Russell Jebbia, Michael Leo and Crow voted in favor of the request, with McCullough, John Clarke and Councilman Don Atkinson against.

Mark Phillips, chief of staff for WJU’s new president, the Rev. James Fleming, told commission members the complex would be composed of two-bedroom apartments, with parking available both at the site and on a lot on the hill overlooking it. Double J Realty would own the building, with WJU responsible for maintenance and security.

McCullough said he understands the concerns of neighborhood residents who, he believes, view WJU’s plan as “an attack” on their properties.

“It’s going to be extremely detrimental to the value of their properties. … These are people who are paying taxes in the city,” McCullough said.

Clarke was troubled by the proposed arrangement between the university and its developer. The university has “first rights” to fill the available units, but he pointed out the developer would not be bound to rent exclusively to WJU students and faculty – a concern he believes extends to other WJU-owned properties on Washington Avenue the university may seek to develop.

“I can see the university, if they’re needing funds, renting those properties out to people other than students,” Clarke said.

WJU’s initial request was to rezone only the five properties from 232-240 Washington Ave., on which it plans to build the apartment complex, from single-family residential to Educational, Medical and Office use. That would have allowed for a structure as tall as six stories in an almost exclusively residential neighborhood, so members of the Planning Commission’s zoning subcommittee offered the R-4 designation, limiting any structure to three stories, as an alternative.

It “seemed to be a pretty good compromise,” Crow said. “In order for them to grow, or for any university to grow, they need housing.”

McCullough called Crow’s comments “misleading,” echoing Clarke’s concern about potential non-university tenants.

At one point, Mauck called for a show of hands from the crowd, asking who was against the request. More than a dozen hands shot up. When he asked who was in favor of the request, only Double J Realty representative Jonathan Bedway raised his hand.

Several residents addressed their concerns in more detail during a public hearing on the issue.

John Deakin Jr. and Tina Birkett pointed to a vacant, university-owned house at 400 Washington Ave. and complained of ongoing issues with rodents and trash on the property.

“They can’t maintain the properties they have there now. … Where are they going to come up with the funds to take care of this facility?” Deakin said.

Sarita Dofka requested her property be exempted from the rezoning, to no avail. Kathy Miller said she worries about traffic and parking issues, while her husband, Randy Miller, questioned whether the area’s infrastructure could handle the demands of a new apartment complex.

In other business, the commission approved The Linsly School’s site plan for an approximately 12,000-square-foot addition to its main academic building, Banes Hall.

The addition will include restrooms, an elevator, and several additional classrooms, including one “high-tech” classroom, according to Allison Carmichael of the engineering firm McKinley & Associates.