Council, Finkbeiner criticize inaction of plan commission

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 19

Two months ago, Toledo city council fought a divisive internal battle to pass a 60-day moratorium on commercial demolitions. The goal: the city would use that time to prepare a set of citywide standards that could save historic buildings and preserve Toledo’s urban character.

But those 60 days are up today, and new standards are still at least several months away.

“I am very, very, very frustrated,” said Peter Ujvagi, the council president. “We went through a very difficult process to get this done, and it appears it was not made a priority.”

“They wanted to send a message, and we sent a message,” said Councilman Louis Escobar, who voted against the moratorium. “But nothing got done.”

Mayor Carty Finkbeiner proposed the moratorium in December following a confrontational battle over a Rite Aid store to be built at Broadway and South Avenue. To make way for the store, several old buildings must be torn down.

The idea was that the moratorium would allow the Toledo plan commission time to approve a set of standards to help planners determine if such projects are good for the city.

Council members initially were opposed to the moratorium, but eventually several, including Mr. Ujvagi, came to support the mayor’s position with a few modifications. On Feb. 2, council grudgingly approved the demolition 7-5 – as close a vote as the members have faced in recent months.

Council members aren’t the only ones upset. In a prepared statement, Mr. Finkbeiner said he was “more than deeply disappointed. … The plan commission just plain dropped the ball.”

The purpose of demolition standards is to require those seeking to demolish commercial buildings to get an official review first.

If a property owner wants to tear down a building, all he or she has to do now is apply for a demolition permit. No planning personnel would ever examine the application for its potential impact on a neighborhood.

The two exceptions are if the building is in a historic district or downtown. In those cases, the demolition plans must be approved by the commission or its director.

The plan commission’s staff, which is led by interim director Steve Herwat, prepared a five-page set of standards, modeled closely on the ones that have been used for downtown since 1986.

But at its March 11 meeting, the proposals faced opposition from several parties, including local developers, who said the standards should face a much longer discussion process.

“I was a little bit worried that there hadn’t been the kind of review it needed,” said Joe Moran, executive director of Downtown ToledoVision, Inc. and one of the people who spoke at the meeting. “The reaction was just a `Gee, things have come along a little too quickly without people knowing what’s going on.”‘

Plan commission members said it would not have been appropriate to rubber stamp the staff’s proposal without getting the input of those who might be affected by it.

“It became obvious at the hearing that there was a considerable amount of concern expressed from various reps of the business community,” said Richard Meyers, the recently retired plan commission chairman. “I think the staff was surprised at the amount of concern people expressed.”

But some council members said developers with concerns about the standards could have made them known without delaying the process.

“We all have telephones, and e-mail, and check our mail,” Mr. Escobar said. “They could have laid out their problems before. The developers are just against this, and they’re going to keep stalling as long as they can.”

Until the scheduled June 10 vote, Mr. Herwat said his staff will be holding meetings with developers and other parties.

Mr. Escobar said the 60-day moratorium was not needed to create a set of standards, but said he wished they had been created in time to meet the deadline. Now, he said “the realist in me thinks it won’t even be done in June.”

But Mr. Finkbeiner is more optimistic: “You can bet that this time they’ll get it right!”