Washington Ave. Apartments Face Council Opposition

WHEELING – Residents who oppose a proposed 36-unit apartment complex on Washington Avenue appeared before City Council on Tuesday to present a petition with more than 120 signatures urging members to deny a zone change necessary to move the project forward.

In fact, the petition – circulated by Washington Avenue resident Mary Lou Birkett, one of several who spoke against the project Tuesday – asks council to reject any change to the neighborhood’s current zoning classification as a single-family residential zone. Developer Jonathan Bedway and his company, Double J Realty, want to build the three-story complex and rent it out to graduate students at Wheeling Jesuit University.

Council was to hear first reading of an ordinance to rezone a large portion of the west side of Washington Avenue during Tuesday’s meeting, held before a standing-room-only crowd at the City-County Building. However, Councilman Don Atkinson delayed the process by two weeks by requesting two properties – 1106 and 1108 W. Washington Ave. – be removed from the proposed rezoning district, citing a difference in character between the properties and the ones located on the main thoroughfare. One belongs to the university, while the other belongs to Sarita Dofka, one of the residents who opposes the university’s plan.

Council approved his motion unanimously, so an amended ordinance will be introduced for first reading Sept. 17 with a vote expected Oct. 1. Even with his amendment, Atkinson expects to vote “no.”

Atkinson is also a member of the city Planning Commission and was among those who voted against recommending the zone change to council in a narrow 4-3 decision Aug. 14. Several commission members were troubled by the proposed arrangement between the university and would-be developer Double J Realty, which could rent to non-university tenants if Wheeling Jesuit is unable to fill all the units.

That, as well as traffic, parking and noise are among the concerns residents have expressed about the project on multiple occasions.

“The people don’t want it. I’m not totally against the project, but the people spoke,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson does not appear to be alone in his views, which may not bode well for the plan. Councilwoman Gloria Delbrugge said she also plans to vote against the zone change, and Councilman David Miller – whose ward includes most of the properties that would be rezoned – said something drastic would have to happen in the coming weeks for him to support the zone change.

“If I were to live there, I wouldn’t want it,” Delbrugge said.

Councilman Robert “Herk” Henry said he remains undecided. But he wonders where the community outrage was when South Wheeling residents opposed Wheeling Housing Authority townhouses built on 33rd Street about three years ago.

“Build it somewhere else, but not in my backyard – that’s what they always say. … They yell at council because we’re not doing anything, but when someone wants to do something, they (are) against it,” Henry said.

Miller said he’s heard from people on both sides of the issue, noting many business owners in the area look forward to increased foot traffic if the apartment complex is built. He also believes the zoning controversy has brought focus to a larger issue taking shape in the neighborhood – only five of the 20 or so properties that would be affected by the zone change are owner-occupied.

Miller added he’s heard WJU plans to hold additional informational meetings about the project in the future.

“I think that’s desperately needed,” he said.

Wheeling Jesuit first announced its intention to build the residential facility in May. Rather than approve the university’s initial “spot zoning” request that would have affected only the five lots from 232-240 Washington Ave. by rezoning them for educational, medical and office use, the Planning Commission’s subcommittee on zoning put forth a plan to turn the entire west side of Washington Avenue from Alice Avenue to Interstate 70 as R-4 – a designation that allows for high-density residential use but limits the maximum height of a building to three stories.

Wheeling Jesuit officials say they need the additional housing to accommodate growth in their graduate degree programs. The university has more than 400 students pursuing graduate degrees and nowhere to put them, according to its new president, the Rev. James Fleming.

As the lone person to address council to endorse WJU’s plan, Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce President Terry Sterling said the ability to create additional housing is “critical to the ongoing and future success” of the university’s programs.

“I know they will do this properly and efficiently and in accordance with all the rules and procedures,” Sterling said.

In other business, council voted to accept the city’s allocation of $1.15 million in Community Development Block Grant funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the current fiscal year. Members also approved placing liens against seven individuals and companies for the cost of demolishing dilapidated structures on their properties.