A $52 million project to house almost 700 students near the University of Cincinnati has cleared most city requirements, but a core group of vocal residents is fighting it to the end.
The controversy is headed for a showdown before city council, possibly within weeks.
Stratford Heights is the name of a new student village proposed by the University Heights Community Urban Redevelopment Corp. (UHCURC), a two-year-old non-profit group. The development includes 14 residential buildings centered around a green, centralizing most of UC's fraternity and sorority organizations.
The project would also include a 152-bed residential building open to the general student body; a multi-use building with a deli-style facility and meeting areas; a 370-space, five-deck parking garage; a 108-space, two-deck garage and 199 surface parking spaces.
The 10.4-acre site just east of Clifton Avenue now has 16 homes occupied by students and a 390-space surface parking lot, controlled by UC, near Stratford Avenue.
A dozen of the 17 fraternity and sorority organizations have expressed interest in relocating to Stratford Heights, according to UHCURC Executive Director Barry Strum. That means about 40 percent of the residential space has serious interest attached to it, he says. Each resident is expected to pay $475 a month in rent.
The project is expected to open in fall 2004.
"I think we can lease the entire village," Strum says.
Each of the buildings is designed to house 28 to 32 students, and each has been designed to match the Tudor architecture of the residential area around UC.
Turf war with homeowners
A core group of about a dozen residents near the site and in neighborhoods near UC have nothing but skepticism about the project, UHCURC and UC in general.
Their opposition goes back to 2000, when David Hummel offered land on Clifton Avenue for a seven-story, 950-space parking garage for UC students and faculty. But city zoning didn't allow a parking structure for non-residents.
A few months later the Greek Affairs Council, an alumni and student organization at UC, stepped in and proposed an early version of the student village.
UHCURC bought the Hummel property and more in 2001, using a $4.5 million low-interest loan from UC's endowment fund. UHCURC hired a St. Louis architect for a preliminary project design of 20 buildings and two garages with 750 spaces but has scaled back the project a bit.
Last summer UHCURC hired Heights Development Corp., a joint development team of Towne Properties of Cincinnati and Miller Valentine of Dayton, to develop the project.
In December the team applied for city approval for Stratford Heights. Hearing examiner Steven Kurtz granted it with several conditions, the most important being acquisition of a variance for the multi-purpose building. A decision from the city's director of buildings and inspections is due any day.
At the heart of the conflict over Stratford Heights is a confusing competition between two community councils near UC.
The Clifton/University Heights/Fairview Community Council (CUF) generally speaks for area homeowners to the south and west of campus. The Clifton Heights Council generally speaks for the largely fraternity, sorority and other student residents west of Clifton Avenue next to UC; its territory includes the Stratford Heights land. The creation of the Clifton Heights Council in the 1980s has its roots in a turf war over housing density near UC, according to CUF member Linda Ziegler.
UHCURC is an independent development group with a five-member board, including two from the Clifton Heights Council, two from the Greek Affairs Council and one UC representative.
The Clifton Heights Council supports Stratford Heights. CUF, which opposes it, has hired attorney Tim Burke to appeal Kurtz' decision.
'People hate change'
The Board of Zoning Appeals approved the project Feb. 10, conditional on city council turning over control of Devotie Avenue and part of Joselin Alley. That will at least slow the project, Burke says.
If the buildings and inspections director approves a variance for the multipurpose building, CUF could appeal that decision as well, further slowing the project, Burke says.
CUF members say they have a petition against the project with 300 signatures. The UC Undergraduate Student Senate has also voted to oppose the project. Scott Adams, who represents the school of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning in the senate, led the charge against Stratford Heights.
Adams says the project doesn't blend with the surrounding neighborhood. He also says students should have been included early on in the decision making. CUF members, too, have felt shut out of UHCURC's affairs.
"It wasn't like they were trying to get your input as much as they were giving a presentation on what they were doing," Adams says.
However, when Strum joined UHCURC in May 2002, he asked CUF to pick two members to advise UHCURC on project design. He never received any names.
"We were rebuffed time and again, and whether we were rebuffed because it was too little, too late, I don't know," Strum says.
Coincidentally, Adams interned for Burke's law office six months ago, but Burke says he wasn't coordinating efforts with Adams.
"All I can tell you is that I was surprised what student government did. I had no idea that was going on," he says.
Residents don't think anything they said to UHCURC was going to make a difference, according to CUF member Lee Diss, a UC graduate who's fixing up his grandparents' former home on Marshall Street.
"We just never really took them at their word for anything," Diss says.
Caleb Faux — an urban planner, UC graduate and one of the Board of Zoning Appeals members who supported the project — says he doubts CUF members are open to a compromise on Stratford Heights. He says some of CUF's concerns are the same he hears anytime a project of this size is proposed in a neighborhood.
"It's been my experience that people really hate change," Faux says. ©