City council passes Union St. housing
Oberlin City Council voted on Jan. 20 to approve new dormitory construction on the Union Street site. The project’s approval was considered crucial after the council’s rejection of the Johnson house construction last November and several months of delay in the Union Street debates. The delay will cost the college more than $200,000 in additional interest charges on bonds taken out to cover the cost of construction.
“The delay will have a negative financial impact,” Vice President of Finance Andrew Evans said. “But it won’t alter the construction of 300 new beds over the next few years.”
Many hope that the decision will also lead to improved relations between the College and the town.
The council passed the proposal 5-1 with council member Eve Sandberg recusing herself due to a conflict of interest as a College professor.
“We’re very pleased,” college President Nancy Dye said. “My sense is that we’ve learned to present these plans earlier and in better form.”
The decision was the first major interaction between the newly elected city council and the College. It is still uncertain what effect the new council members, who include Sandberg and former Oberlin community outreach director Dan Gardner, will have on town-gown relations.
“That’s going to be what time will tell,” council member Ronnie Rimbert said. “Obviously we’re trying to work for solutions that benefit everybody.”
Rimbert agreed that the College had a lot to learn in dealing with city officials.
“The communication has to start on the front end, not the back end,” he said.
Architect Joe Ferut will design the dorms, which will include 11 three story buildings with a total of 135 rooms. The College estimates the cost per bed of the construction to be approximately $50,000.
Rimbert also expressed uncertainty about the effect that the construction would have on Oberlin’s housing market.
“Obviously the town housing stock will be affected,” Rimbert said.
Other concerns included building density, parking and the paving over of green space.
For the College, the decision represents at least a partial vindication after resistance from both citizens and students derailed the Johnson house construction.
Because of the failed Johnson House proposition the college will have to pay roughly $500,000 in additional interest on bonds taken out to cover the cost of that construction.
“We have to invest money in housing on an ongoing basis,” Dye said. “We’re probably on par with most other colleges but some put an enormous amount of money into housing.”
Vice President of Finance Ron Watts explained that the college’s housing plans were not confined to Union Street.
“We’re investigating new sites north of town and behind the art museum,” he said.
He also indicated that the much contested Johnson House site was still not off the table.
“I would never say it’s dead,” he said. “There’s still interest there.”
The next phase includes contruction and engineering studies. “As issues come up, they will be resolved,” Evans said. He called the potential problems “very normal.”