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City Council Updates UMCH Plan, Reflecting Voices of the Residents

This is a long post about an extremely important topic—UMCH.  Here’s the outline:

  1. Summary
  2. Background of the Comprehensive Plan
  3. General Principles of the 2022 update
  4. General Components of the new Plan
  5. Moving Forward
  6. Questions and Criticisms
  7. The Choice We Faced, the Action We Took

Summary

At the January 18 public meeting, City Council passed a Resolution updating the UMCH portion of the City’s Comprehensive Plan, effective upon passage.  This action was years in the making and, I believe, long overdue.  The new Plan is grounded in the views of Worthington residents, not consulting firms, and creates the possibility of a new way forward for our community on this vital yet contentious issue.

The new Plan replaces the 2014 Plan, which promoted a high-density outcome at UMCH and was referenced repeatedly in Lifestyle Communities’ proposals as supposedly compatible with their apartment-heavy business model.  The new Plan passed by Council (the full text is provided below, at bottom), will now guide development considerations at UMCH, by both developers and the City.  The vote for the new Plan was 4 yeas (Brewer, Bucher, Robinson, Smith) and 3 nays (Hermann, Kowalczyk, Michael).

What follows below is primarily an overview of the new Plan so that you can judge for yourself whether it fairly represents the general views and aspirations of the broad public.  I believe it does, far better than the 2014 Plan it replaced.  But what is important is whether you and your many neighbors share this assessment, and can support the new Plan’s general direction.  Now more than ever I invite and encourage your feedback (davidwrobinsonblog@gmail.com).

Following this review of the 2022 Plan, I’ll address some questions and criticisms I’ve heard, explaining why, because of a compelling public purpose, Council needed to act quickly the way we did.

Background of the Comprehensive Plan

The Comprehensive Plan (the “Plan”) is the City’s central land-use planning document.  The Plan is intended to guide prospective developers regarding the City’s current thinking about what types of development are desirable in the different areas of the city, and, as a consequence, what type of development proposal is most likely to receive eventual approval.  Further, the Plan—in subordinate relationship to our City Code (zoning, etc.), and augmented by our Design Guidelines—serves to guide city staff, the Municipal Planning Commission (MPC), and City Council itself, in evaluating proposals that have been submitted to the City.  In sum, the Plan plays a key role in establishing the contours of what is desirable and possible within Worthington.  It has had, and will have, a significant role in determining development considerations at UMCH.

The Comprehensive Plan includes a specific section for the “United Methodist Children’s Home Focus Area.”  In 2014, this section of the Plan was updated (from the previous 2005 version), by City Council Resolution, effective immediately, following a process led by urban design consulting firm MKSK.  The 2014 Plan, written by MKSK, proposed a high-density mixed-use outcome at UMCH, consistent with the new-urbanism model that was popular within the development industry at that time.

Since the adoption of this 2014 Plan update, Lifestyle Communities has presented three versions of a high-density development at UMCH. These included roughly 500 residential units (in 2015), 700 units (in 2020), and 600 units (in 2021).  Throughout, Lifestyle made frequent references to the 2014 Plan as implicit validation of their own proposals. [Note: the 2015 Lifestyle plan, though not a formal proposal, was previewed at a public meeting of the MPC at the WEC, attended by several hundred Worthingtonians; the 2020 and 2021 plans were formal proposals submitted to the City, and reviewed through our normal regulatory processes involving staff, the MPC, and Council itself].

So that is a bit of the nature and history of the “United Methodist Children’s Home Focus Area” section of the Comprehensive Plan.  It was this section, and only this section, that was updated by City Council Resolution on Tuesday, January 18, 2022.

General Principles of the new update

The new update is based on the views and values of the broad public, as we have heard them voiced many, many times over the last 10 years—through countless meetings, many hundreds of letters and testimonials, and well over a thousand petition signatures.  The new update is straightforward in its expression of general principles and broad parameters.  The language both endorses and constrains, and is flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of viewpoints for future discussion, deliberation, and decision-making.

There are four basic principles at the heart of the new update.

The first two principles state that we should think comprehensively and long-term:

  • It is important that the development of the property be considered and executed holistically, as an integrated whole.
  • Because of its size and central location, this undeveloped land represents a singular opportunity for the City of Worthington to develop the property in a manner that is extraordinary and that serves the long-term interests of the community.  As an historic community, it is natural and appropriate for the City and its residents to think in this way.

The third principle outlines specific constraining factors—traffic, impacts on the environment and schools, etc.—and describes positive goals of any outcome at the site.  These specific criteria all contribute to the overarching idea that any development must be “harmonious and compatible” with the community:

  • It is essential that any development of the site be harmonious and compatible with the fabric of surrounding neighborhoods and the natural environment.  This pertains to traffic patterns, environmental impact, scale and density of any residential housing, impact on schools, and the architectural and aesthetic provisions inherent for any property, as are these parcels, located within the Architectural Review District. Stated positively, outcomes should increase community well-being and vibrancy, opportunities for social activities for persons of all ages, bicycle and pedestrian connectivity, commercial opportunities, and housing, appropriate in scale and type, that support these goals.

Finally, the fourth principle establishes the standard that the outcome at this property ought to reflect Worthington’s distinctive character—to not imitate—and to strive for something exceptional:

  • We seek an outcome on this land that is distinctive, exceptional, and expressive of Worthington’s own values and community ethos.

General Components of the new Plan

Following the statement of basic principles, the Plan provides a general outline of the desirable outcomes for the different areas of the property (flexible in the relative proportion and makeup):

  • Compatible with current S-1 zoning, a large contiguous greenspace, central to the property and inclusive of the Tucker Creek acreage, is a highly desirable component of any outcome.
  • Commercial development, aimed at revenue generation for the City and select service-oriented retail that is compatible with the development, is highly desirable along High St., roughly in conformity with the existing C-2 and C-3 zoned areas.
  • Residential housing, though requiring rezoning, is desirable, if: 1) it is creatively executed, and, 2) whether embedded within the commercial areas or free-standing, is harmonious in overall mass and scale, form, and impact upon surrounding neighborhoods.

Moving Forward

Passage of the Plan update does not, of course, resolve the issue of UMCH nor answer how we will get to a successful resolution.  But the new Plan does something very important: it aligns the City’s Plan for UMCH with the values and viewpoints of our residents, thereby putting the Plan on the secure footing (the only secure footing) of public support.  This agreement of City Plans with public opinion has been missing since 2014, and is at the root of why we have been stuck in a repetitive cycle of having to receive and then evaluate development proposals that are, predictably, firmly rejected by the bulk of our residents.  The new Plan seeks to end that cycle, to free us from a fruitless and divisive process, and to provide a way forward at UMCH based on genuine public support.  In the end, this clarity of purpose will benefit all parties.

The next steps have not yet been determined, but I am committed to working with my colleagues on Council, City staff, and the broad public to proactively engage this issue.  I will be advocating for serious, rigorous studies—cost/benefit analyses—of various outcomes at the property, in order to provide us with actual data and numbers to guide our thinking and to ground our judgments.  Despite the many years, this has not been done previously.

I believe that for productive public discourse to occur, objective information needs to be developed and made available to all. Rigorous studies—conducted and facilitated by firms without a vested interest—of different development outcomes ought to encompass the full spectrum of relevant metrics: impacts on the schools, traffic, city budget, housing, environment (water, trees, noise, air, etc.), general appeal of the city, secondary economic effects, social life, recreational opportunities, walkability, effects on other commercial areas of the city, and so on.  Again, this level and type of study has never been undertaken for this property.  Instead, we have spent years talking in general concepts only, in a mix of partial or sometimes misleading information.  We can and must do better than that.  I believe that “an informed and engaged public is the basis of sound public policy.”  That is nowhere truer than in this case.

Now let me state the obvious: though we control the zoning of the property, we do not own the property.  The current property owner is Lifestyle Communities (to read about how Lifestyle purchased the property for a discounted $5.2 million, click here: https://davidrobinsonblog.com/2021/05/umch-whats-next-part-i-backdrop-lifestyles-buys-5-2-million-discounted-contract-price/).  How Lifestyle will proceed we do not know.  I hope productive dialog will soon ensue.  I will seek that.  But what we can control now is the content of the City’s Comprehensive Plan in order to provide a basic vision for desirable outcomes.  And we can prepare ourselves for future contingencies by engaging in the studies and community dialog I suggested above.  That is my proposed course of action at present, and what I will bring to Council.  Again, feedback is most welcome (davidwrobinsonblog@gmail.com).

Questions and Criticisms

Not surprisingly, this quick action—a clear departure from Council’s reactive stance over the last seven years—has raised a number of questions among the public. These questions are wholly understandable and a sign of civic health.  I welcome these questions, and personally share the values underlying them, for instance, the importance of transparency in our local governance.  I see it as my responsibility to address these questions and I do so below.

From others, their response to our action has not been inquiry but criticism.  This too is a central, indispensable part of our governmental system.  I address the criticisms below, and do so with confidence that once the facts are known, the actions of this Council will be supported by the broad public.  That’s because the alternatives—doing nothing and accepting the status quo, or acting in a way that empowers Lifestyle Communities to block basic City action—were counter to the public interest.  This recent action by your Council was an important step in aligning City policy with public opinion regarding UMCH, thereby offering a new way forward for the residents, the City, and, perhaps, Lifestyle Communities.

Why update the UMCH Plan?

The City’s 2014 Plan, written by a consulting firm, endorsed a high-density, apartment-heavy outcome at UMCH.  This was in contrast to the 2005 Plan, which stated that “a predominance of residential development at these sites [UMCH and Harding Hospital/Boundless] is not advisable or in the City’s best interests.”  Nonetheless, this 2014 Plan has been an underlying factor behind Lifestyle’s several plans, all three of them minor variations on the same high-density project.  Each time, 2015, 2020, and 2021, the public has convincingly rejected these Lifestyle plans and the basic concepts underlying them.

Further, if the 2014 Plan had remained in place, Lifestyle could have submitted their basic proposal again, and again, and again, claiming City sanction because of the 2014 Plan.  Eventually, cities, like people, may get worn down, exhausted, eventually approving something in order to end the futility and chronic divisiveness.  In contrast, by updating the Plan, we have articulated and established in general terms what the public, and therefore the City, wants and will accept.  This Council action provides greater clarity to developers, and finally enables the City to advocate on behalf of the residents by way of the Comprehensive Plan.

Why Now?

Our Comprehensive Plan can be updated only when there is not an active proposal before the City for the relevant parcels.  When there is a proposal before us, we can’t change the applicable Plan, for both legal and practical reasons.  Lifestyle Communities most recently had a proposal before the City from October 2020, until December 2021, when City Council (following the MPC) voted to deny their proposal.  So a window opened with the removal of their proposal, making it possible that Council could update the Plan—but only if we did so before Lifestyle submitted another application.

But isn’t Lifestyle prevented from submitting a proposal until April, 2022?

Following the rejection of their proposal by City Council, Lifestyle is indeed prevented from submitting a rezoning proposal until six months from the MPC meeting that denied their proposal.  That would be April, 2022.  But—importantly—Lifestyle could still submit various applications in conformity with existing zoning (e.g., a building permit) that would likewise prevent us from updating the UMCH Plan.  In sum, Lifestyle could have acted at any time, effectively blocking us from updating our own Plan, locking in place for them the 2014 Plan.

Why did you not announce this action beforehand?

If we had made it publicly known that we were going to discuss and possibly update the Plan at our City Council meeting, Lifestyle could have acted before our meeting to block our action (by doing something as simple as submitting a building permit application, as discussed above).  This is not a hypothetical—it actually happened back in 2020.  At the September 21, 2020 Council meeting, I proposed that we discuss, and then act, to suspend the 2014 Plan.  A Resolution had been prepared by our Law Director to effect this, but my motion was rejected largely on the basis that we needed to announce this beforehand to allow for public input.  So what did Lifestyle do?  They quickly submitted a proposal prior to our next meeting.  Through their unilateral actions, Lifestyle blocked our ability as a community to write our own planning documents, effectively holding us hostage to the outdated, high-density 2014 Plan.

Normally, under almost all conceivable circumstances, public notice and engagement is a bedrock principle of sound governance that I fully embrace.  The exceptions to this principle are very few, usually related to legal issues where early public disclosure could harm the city and its residents.  Given Lifestyle’s history and past actions, the circumstances we faced were extraordinary and, I believe, warranted Council acting quickly without notice so as to preserve our ability to write our own Plan when and how we saw fit.  It was only in this way that we could avoid giving Lifestyle the ability to block our actions.

The Choice We Faced, the Action We Took

Our city government, for the prior ten years, had managed the UMCH issue in such a way that it was divisive, unproductive, and unresolved.  The status quo provided no end in sight.  There were no new ideas, and no action planned.  To me, successfully resolving the UMCH issue is of the highest importance to the community and, therefore, a central responsibility of mine and my colleagues on City Council.  When the new Council was sworn in at the first meeting in January, and I was elected President as part of the new leadership team, I carefully considered the choices before us.  I consulted repeatedly with our City Manager and Law Director.  The choices were as follows:

1) Do nothing.

2) Announce ahead of time our plans to discuss and update the Plan, enabling Lifestyle to block our actions.

3) Discuss and update the Plan, without prior announcement, and therefore free from outside interference and with the ability to discuss and update further if desired.

The first choice would have consigned us to untold futility moving forward and the probability of an unwelcome outcome.

The second choice, announcing beforehand, would have allowed Lifestyle to block our ability to literally write our own plans for the future. Giving any corporation this power over our community is completely unacceptable to me, and warranted Council taking the third choice.

The third choice, acting quickly without notice, was the least undesirable of the three choices.  But that is the position we were in, and I firmly believe that acting as we did was the best choice in the interest of the community.

If someone, knowing the facts outlined above, still says that we should have given prior public notice, what they are saying is that they would be OK with Lifestyle again having the capacity to block our ability to write our own Plan.  That course of action would have been a failure of leadership and a breeching of my commitment to the public.  I was unwilling to allow that possibility.

We can now move forward with robust public discussion and action, freed from the burden of the old 2014 Plan.

Below is the full text of the Resolution passed by council on 1.18.22, followed by the full text of the comprehensive plan amendment. As always, I welcome your feedback (davidwrobinsonblog@gmail.com).

______________________________________________________________________________

RESOLUTION NO. xx-2022

Adopting an Amendment to the Comprehensive Plan Update and 2005 Strategic Plan, and the 2014 Amendment (Resolution No. 39-2014), for the United Methodist Children’s Home Focus Area for the City of Worthington.

WHEREAS, City Council wishes to amend the Comprehensive Plan Update and 2005 Strategic Plan, including the 2014 Amendment (Resolution No. 39-2014), as it pertains to the United Methodist Children’s Home Focus Area, in order to guide future use and development of the site and to encourage the social vibrancy and economic health of the City; and,

WHEREAS, City Council has, since the last Comprehensive Plan Update related to the United Methodist Children’s Home Focus Area (Resolution No. 39-2014), received on multiple occasions and through many mediums communications from members of the public and public interest groups on the subject of UMCH development, which, in light of the City’s prior planning, has provided the insights and understandings needed to produce a well-grounded and high quality revision to the Plan; and,

WHEREAS, City Council wishes to utilize the Comprehensive Plan as an important source for guiding the development, wise growth, and long-term investments in the community.

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED by the Council of the Municipality of Worthington, County of Franklin, State of Ohio:

SECTION 1.  That the attached amendment to the Comprehensive Plan Update and 2005 Strategic Plan, including the 2014 Amendment (Resolution No. 39-2014), as it pertains to the United Methodist Children’s Home Focus Area, be adopted to serve as a guide for future use and development of the site.

SECTION 2.  That the Clerk of Council be and hereby is instructed to record this Resolution in the appropriate record book.

Adopted _______________

________________________________

President of Council

________________________________

Clerk of Council

~

 

Text of the 2022 Comprehensive Plan, United Methodist Children’s Home Focus Area

United Methodist Children’s Home Focus Area

This section of the Worthington Comprehensive Plan was updated in 2022 for the United Methodist Children’s Home Focus Area.  This section, following a short Background introduction, is stated in terms of guiding principles and general components for future development of the site.  This text reflects, following the 2014 update, a current understanding of public opinion, market conditions, and evolving societal and environmental values.

Background

The United Methodist Children’s Home Focus Area, given the size and location of this undeveloped land, represents a unique opportunity for the City and residents of Worthington to enhance social vibrancy and economic prosperity in a sustainable manner. The site is located north of Old Worthington, and south of the High North  and Worthington Gateway projects, along the High Street Corridor.  This land, located between these historic and economic focal points, and directly across the street from City Hall, may serve as a centerpoint for City planning.

The goal of this update, as with the other content of this Plan, is to provide guidance regarding the range of desired land uses and development options, respectful of property valuation within current zoning, and to assist the City with its review and evaluation of any proposal. This Plan will guide and facilitate any future development process for this site in a manner that conforms with the well-being of the general public as well as the rightful interests of the property owners.

Guiding Principles

  • It is important that the development of the property be considered and executed holistically, as an integrated whole.
  • Because of its size and central location, this undeveloped land represents a singular opportunity for the City of Worthington to develop the property in a manner that is extraordinary and that serves the long-term interests of the community.  As an historic community, it is natural and appropriate for the City and its residents to think in this way.
  • It is essential that any development of the site be harmonious and compatible with the fabric of surrounding neighborhoods and the natural environment.  This pertains to traffic patterns, environmental impact, scale and density of any residential housing, impact on schools, and the architectural and aesthetic provisions inherent for any property, as are these parcels, located within the Architectural Review District.  Stated positively, outcomes should increase community well-being and vibrancy, opportunities for social activities for persons of all ages, bicycle and pedestrian connectivity, commercial opportunities, and housing, appropriate in scale and type, that support these goals.
  • We seek an outcome on this land that is distinctive, exceptional, and expressive of Worthington’s own values and community ethos.

General Components

  • Compatible with current S-1 zoning, a large contiguous greenspace, central to the property and inclusive of the Tucker Creek acreage, is a highly desirable component of any outcome.  
  • Commercial development, aimed at revenue generation for the City and select service-oriented retail that is compatible with the development, is highly desirable along High St., roughly in conformity with the existing C-2 and C-3 zoned areas.
  • Residential housing, though requiring rezoning, is desirable, if: 1) it is creatively executed, and, 2) whether embedded within the commercial areas or free-standing, is harmonious in overall mass and scale, form, and impact upon surrounding neighborhoods.

~

David Robinson

David Robinson lives in Worthington with his wife, Lorraine, and their three children who attend Otterbein University and Colonial Hills Elementary. David is President and co-owner of Marcy Adhesives, Inc., a local manufacturing company. David has served on Worthington City Council since January, 2018, and is deeply committed to 1) advancing resident-centered policies, 2) supporting responsible development that enhances our unique historic character, 3) endorsing environmentally sustainable practices for both residents and city operations, 4) promoting the safety and well-being of all residents, and 5) preserving the family-friendly nature of our neighborhoods.