An Obstacle for East College St.
Despite the demolition that has already begun on the East College Street Project, the development now finds itself in a somewhat tenuous position as it awaits city council’s vote on the financing ordinance that Sustainable Community Associates, the creators of the project, say they need in order to continue.
In a contentious city council meeting that lasted nearly five hours Monday, council members appeared conflicted in spite of their initial support of the Tax Increment Finance agreement. It’s necessary to the project in large part because most of SCA’s current funding is conditional upon the city’s granting this TIF.
The TIF would provide the SCA with funding for the public infrastructure aspects of their development. This would include replacing old, broken pipelines and building a new road.
Last week, the school board unanimously voiced its support of the project and approved the TIF, conditioned on city council’s passage of it by Dec. 31. If passed before the New Year, the agreement will provide the school board with an additional $50,000 in revenue per year from the East College Street properties — if the development is successful. However, if the ordinance is passed after January, a new state tax law would essentially take that additional revenue from Oberlin schools.
In order to pass the TIF before Jan. 1, city council must elevate the issue to emergency status, which allows them to approve an issue after two readings rather than three. At the issue’s first reading Monday, council members voted 4-3 in support of the TIF; however, the issue will require a vote of 5-2 at the second hearing in two weeks in order to pass under emergency status.
Councilman Charles Peterson was among the most passionately vocal on behalf of the project. He argued that the TIF is a widely used and respected instrument of economic development, and that the East College Street Project would provide a valuable opportunity to offset the potential business loss that the incoming Wal-Mart may cause.
“I have stated publicly and without reservation my support for the East College Street Project,” he said, adding that he was concerned with what he described as the “sideshow antics and misinformation” utilized by the some of the project’s opponents at the meeting.
“East College Street could provide a vital boost to the downtown district. This is the face of the future for Oberlin,” he added.
Councilman Ronnie Rimbert, who voted against the project, expressed concern over the clarity of its purpose.
“I’ve seen this project whittle down from its public purpose aspect over the years,” he said, referring to the fact that SCA initially intended the project to provide almost exclusively low income housing opportunities. Now, SCA plans for only about 20 percent of its residences to be low-income housing.
Josh Rosen, OC ’01 and one of SCA’s three developers, explained that when SCA began planning the East College Street project, a tax credit existed in Ohio that would have helped them provide low-income housing. However, he said, that credit is no longer available in Ohio, which makes providing low-income housing financially difficult. With the help of a philanthropist, SCA has been able to maintain a significant portion of low income housing in the project.
Councilman Calvin Waite, who joined city council in September after councilman Bill Jindra stepped down, also voted against the project.
“I do not see proper representation here,” he said, referring to the fact that virtually no people of color attended the meeting. “Until I can get the message out that I am hearing tonight, I am not ready to vote on this issue.
“This is a real problem that the city has, forget East College Street,” Waite commented later. “Look closely, and you can see that this is a somewhat divided city, and some people feel they never get a piece of the pie, never get a chance to get in.”
Waite added at the meeting that, being new to council, he did not think that that the TIF issue was clear enough to him for him to vote yes yet.
Sharon Soucy, although she voted for the TIF ordinances, raised concerns over the fact that SCA’s agreement with the city was not yet complete.
“As someone who would like nothing better than to see this project material, I hit a brick wall at financial covenants,” she said. “Why are we still in the process of negotiating while we are being asked to pass this?”
Robert Dispirito, the city manager, assured council that granting the TIF would be conditional on all of the council’s conditions being met.
At the same meeting, town residents filled council’s chambers and contributed to the debate with passion.
School board member Marci Alegant spoke in support of the TIF.
“The TIF represents a significant increase in revenue for the school, and as citizens of Oberlin we can’t ignore that,” she said. “I urge city council to be courageous and visionary in its thinking in voting on this. These young developers have the potential to bring us into the 21st century.”
Several downtown storeowners also voiced their support for the project.
Geof Comings, director of the nonprofit downtown development Main St. Oberlin, spoke in support of the TIF as well.
Long-time Kendal resident Sam Goldberg echoed this support.
“Downtown development is recommended in the comprehensive plan approved by the city of Oberlin,” he said. “Rejection of the project leaves the city with a large swath of downtown property undeveloped and unlikely to be developed by anyone else without a TIF.”
Town resident and councilman-elect Tony Mealy raised numerous objections to the TIF. He described the report that established the need for repairs to the public infrastructure on East College Street as “rather inaccurate.” The report, he said, cited the need for improvements where some had already been recently made. Dispirito responded.
“It may be true that some [aspects of the] infrastructure have been replaced, but other aspects of it have not, and the fact remains that much of the existing infrastructure is substandard,” he said.
Mealy said that, while he had no objection to the project itself, he thought that it should be built “on [the developers’] own dime,” not the city’s.
SCA member Ben Ezinga, OC ’01, responded by saying that the upgraded sewer line would allow for future development on the whole east side of downtown Oberlin.
“That’s the point of what we’re talking to the city about,” he said later. “If the city installs the proper infrastructure then development can occur and bring new jobs and tax revenues. Right now the sewers and other infrastructure can’t handle new development.”
Rosen spoke on SCA’s behalf to city council.
“Combined with the TIF, the project provides a solid investment opportunity for the city,” he said.
Rosen explained that SCA has recently received an $11.5 million loan from U.S.Bank, a $3.2 million equity investment from the Enterprise Foundation and a $3.5 million construction guarantee from a national philanthropist. He presented these investments as evidence of major outside support for and confidence in the project.
Rosen said later that SCA was pleased to receive the majority of council’s support Monday, and that in the next two weeks they will work to ensure that city council has all the documentation and information it needs to make an informed decision.
“I think once all the facts are examined by city council, a majority
will conclude that this project happening will benefit all of Oberlin,” he