WHEELING - As Wheeling Jesuit University seeks to meet a demand for graduate student housing, city officials may look to create a path for such development by rezoning a large stretch of Washington Avenue.
The university had applied for a zone change for just five parcels from 232-240 Washington Ave. - including three it owns and two it is under contract to purchase - in anticipation of building a three-story apartment complex for graduate students and faculty members. The school was seeking to have those properties rezoned from R-1A single-family residential to Educational, Medical and Office use.
The city Planning Commission voted last month to refer the matter for further review by its zoning committee, composed of commission Chairman Howard Monroe and members Barry Crow and Thomas McCullough. That body on Monday proposed a different solution - rezoning the entire west side of Washington Avenue from Interstate 70 to Alice Avenue as R-4 high-density residential.
Such a designation would allow for an apartment structure up to three stories tall, while an EMO zone would permit a structure as high as six stories - a detail that troubled some Planning Commission members.
"I think EMO opens up a lot of questions about what future uses could be. ... What their future intent is has a lot to do with this," Monroe said.
McCullough noted he previously opposed even referring the matter for further review because he felt an EMO zone could prove too disruptive to the neighborhood. But an R-4 designation may be more palatable to residents, he said.
The Rev. James Fleming, in one of his first official acts as WJU's president, told committee members the university has plenty of office space on campus and likely would pursue any expansion for institutional purposes in the downtown area, such as the planned move of its physical therapy program into the Stone Center on Market Plaza.
The university has more than 400 students pursuing graduate degrees, but only 24 units inside its off-campus Steenrod Hall to house them.
Undergraduate students occupy every one of the university's 904 on-campus beds, Fleming said.
Crow said he believes the university's growth is important for the city's future, and pointed to the impact of West Virginia University on its home city, Morgantown - one of the few areas in the state experiencing a population surge.
"In order for them to grow, they need housing," Crow said of WJU. "Everybody needs housing, and they need decent housing. That's what they're trying to do here, I believe."
Tom Connelly, assistant director of the city's Economic and Community Development Department, said there are already several properties on that stretch of Washington Avenue that don't conform to the guidelines of a single-family residential zone, including several duplexes and even one office building. Though non-conforming, those uses are permitted because they were "grandfathered" in when the zoning code was adopted.
The university owns about 50 percent of the properties on the stretch under consideration. Some of the residents who opposed WJU's plan during the June 10 Planning Commission meeting said the university has a history of failing to maintain its property.
Fleming addressed those claims following Monday's meeting, noting the majority of the dilapidated properties in the area belong to absentee landlords. He said the university's properties are "well-kept," with the exception of one house at 400 Washington Ave. he acknowledges is in poor shape.
"They're right to complain about it," he said, noting WJU wants to get rid of that building if it can get clearance to build something better in its place.
Fleming added residents who are concerned about potential crime and noise should know that being a good neighbor is something WJU expects of its students.
A public hearing on rezoning is likely to be held during the Aug. 12 Planning Commission meeting. WJU's project would still be subject to site plan review by that body, even if City Council ultimately approves a zone change.