News: Going Greek

UC decides what's best for Clifton

The 800-pound gorilla known as the University of Cincinnati is at it again — or at least the son of the gorilla is. A year-old community development corporation backed by UC is working on a new $50 million Greek-centered student housing project across the street from campus. But some homeowners are vowing to fight the proposal.

The Stratford Heights plan, presented Dec. 13 to leaders of UC fraternities, sororities and other organizations, would provide new housing for approximately 600 students on property across Clifton Avenue, where 16 rental houses and a parking lot now stand.

The plan calls for demolition of the old houses and construction of 20 new houses, four stories each, built around a central green split by Stratford.

The proposal also includes a community center for the neighborhood, plus two garages with a total of 750 spaces in the property's west side to make up for the 380 spaces in the old Stratford parking lot. Students are expected to use some of those new spaces.

The University Heights Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation (UHCURC) bought the land April 30 with a $4.5 million UC loan. In October the group held a three-day community planning session, producing the current proposal.

But some homeowners, already fed up with noise and trash from parties in off-campus Greek houses and other student housing, are united against the proposal. About a dozen of them went to the Dec. 13 presentation, which was supposed to be an internal meeting with Greek and other student organizations.

"Somehow we got the word out and got some community members," said Gary Menchhofer, president of UHCURC, looking around a small conference room at UC's Kingsgate Conference Center, a hint of nervousness in his voice. About 50 people sat in three horseshoe-shaped rings of seats, including the homeowners. Some of them chuckled a bit at the idea they were welcome.

"The things that you see tonight are subject to change," Menchhofer said before presentations by the project architect and financial analyst.

The tentative proposal calls for 30 residents in each house, almost all sleeping two per room. Each fraternity or sorority is expected to raise $1.5 million to help pay for the house, which UHCURC would own, manage and lease to the students. UHCURC would keep a close eye on the students' behavior and use leases to weed out trouble, according to Menchhofer.

UC's 23 Greek organizations are scattered in neighborhoods around the campus in houses that are showing their age. Stratford is an attempt to unify the Greeks, provide them better housing and link the new village to UC's Main Street project on campus.

If there isn't enough demand for Greek housing, religious or other student organizations could lease some of the houses, Menchhofer said.

What UC wants, residents get
But a group of residents, including Linda Ziegler — the sixth generation of her family to live in Clifton Heights, just southwest of the campus — see a nightmare in the making. She regularly hears the parties at the three Greek houses about two blocks from her home. She has little trust for the people in UHCURC and UC in general. This is the latest attempt to throw their weight and money around neighborhoods close to UC, she says.

In the fall of 2000, Ziegler and other members of the Clifton Heights, University Heights and Fairview Community Council (CUF) fought off an attempt to build a 950-space garage with six attached apartments on Clifton Avenue. Property owner David Hummel proposed the project to UC, which was interested in leasing the spaces. But city zoning laws forbade the garage because it wasn't going to be used by people living in the neighborhood, according to Ziegler.

Menchhofer joined the housing committee of UC's Greek Affairs Council in early 2000. The council was already talking about rehabilitating Greek housing, but it soon became clear rehabs would be as costly as new houses. The end of Hummel's garage proposal was the beginning of UHCURC, founded in December 2000 to handle development projects. Its first big move — buying Hummel's land in April for $4.4 million — led to the Stratford Heights proposal.

Ziegler doesn't see how putting all the Greeks in one place is going to improve their conduct. She wonders how accountable the proposed UHCURC property management company will be, who will be there to answer the phone at 2 a.m. and what the policy on alcohol use will be at Stratford Heights.

"That's something we have to talk about," Menchhofer said.

Menchhofer acknowledges UC's Greek organizations haven't met the high academic and civic standards they maintained in the 1960s, when he attended UC as an economics student and a member of Pi Kappa Alpha. He was its national president from 1986 to 1988.

For some, the Greek system has been little more than a party network, he said.

"We're hoping to attract a better-quality student," Menchhofer said.

Ziegler isn't sure what that means, but she believes UHCURC is doing this not for the surrounding neighborhoods — but in spite of them.

Ziegler says any resident who's critical of UC and its development has been left out of the decision-making process. These residents, who comprise about one-third of CUF, don't always get notices about public meetings from the CUF leaders, Ziegler said.

Menchhofer emphasized the proposal is a work in progress.

Yes, Ziegler said, UHCURC appointed a critical CUF member to their community advisory committee, but only after October. Before then, UHCURC members wouldn't even answer her letters or return her phone calls about the proposal, she says.

Distrust between critical homeowners and project backers surfaced Dec. 13 in heated exchanges. A couple of residents said it isn't the projects' details — they don't like the project at all. They wondered why UHCURC didn't start from square one with them.

"We're asking for your support," Menchhofer said.

"Why don't you give us your support?" Ziegler replied.

When Menchhofer was asked the next day why UHCURC didn't involve critical residents from the start — after all, UHCURC knew their names from the previous parking garage fight — he said there was no project to talk about until the property sale in April.

So, in effect, he puts the critical residents in a Catch-22: Early on, there's no project; but as soon as the sale closes, Stratford Heights is a real possibility that's moving forward. These residents never were given a meaningful chance to say they didn't want the project at all or to propose something that didn't involve buying the property.

Menchhofer, a real estate developer, said UHCURC couldn't openly talk about a land purchase before it happened. But if UHCURC really wanted resident input, Ziegler says, it would have formed a committee of all those affected from the start.

Ziegler is aware of about 50 people, both in and outside CUF, who oppose Stratford Heights.

Menchhofer said there will be more meetings in early 2002 to work out details, but he's not sure what UHCURC will do if a majority of residents oppose the proposal UHCURC brings to the city's zoning board.

"I hope what they'll do is open their eyes and support us," Menchhofer said.

But Ziegler finds nothing redeeming in the proposal, which she doesn't think is financially feasible anyway. Is it possible residents will get together and defeat it as they did Hummel's garage?

"I would like to think we could," Ziegler said. ©

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