Worthington News

UMCH site

Office setback still a sticking point, but council will get final say Sept. 2

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The nagging question remaining over the development of the United Methodist Children's Home site appears to be one of setbacks.

When office buildings of four or five stories are built along High Street, should they be close to the street, creating the "urban" feel that seems to be popular among planners? Or should new buildings be pushed back, allowing the continuation of the lush, green lawns that currently distinguish the section of High Street from Wilson Bridge Road to Old Worthington?

That seems to be a major sticking point as the yearlong process of rewriting the city's recommendations for the redevelopment of the 41-acre UMCH site comes to a close.

The question divided Municipal Planning Commission members and planning consultants as the commission took its final shot at making changes to the consultant's recommendation before the proposed plan moves on the Worthington City Council on Sept. 2.

Council will have final say in the wording of the amendment to the city's comprehensive plan, which has been written and rewritten by consultants from MKSK, with extensive input from residents through a series of public meetings and an interactive website.

The comprehensive plan is a guideline for developers and city officials. The city hired the consultants to amend the section on UMCH when the piece of prime Worthington real estate went on the market over a year ago.

Interest is high, with many residents and city officials agreeing that how the land is developed would have a great impact on the city's future.

The MKSK proposal recommends that land along High Street be developed with four- or five-story office buildings that would be built above shops or restaurants.

Around the exterior of the land would be single-family residential housing, creating a buffer between the UMCH site and the abutting Worthington Estates neighborhood.

The center of the site would be developed with denser types of housing, such as apartments and/or townhomes.

Land also would be set aside for parks, including the land surrounding Tucker's Creek on the south side of the property.

Few seem to question the basic layout being recommended, but details about density, traffic and High Street setbacks continue to plague the planning process.

MPC member James Sauer has taken a lead in encouraging the retention of the green setbacks along High Street, whereas MKSK planner Chris Hermann continues to push for the urban, built-to-the-sidewalk appearance.

Sauer said he always has liked the look of the green areas in front of the offices along High Street and would hate to see that disappear. He and others have pointed to new urban-style developments in Upper Arlington as examples of what they do not want to see in Worthington.

The proposal calls for the new office buildings to be more than 25 feet from High Street, but that is not enough, Sauer said. A four-story building set 25 feet from High Street is not acceptable, he said.

In comparison, CVS is 36 feet from High Street; the Old Worthington Huntington Bank is 48 feet; the fire station is 52 feet; and the municipal building is 105 feet.

Hermann said the idea is to create a walkable environment, with shopping and outdoor dining along High Street, similar to the area in downtown Worthington.

Also, the farther back from High Street the buildings are set, the greater challenge it becomes to find areas for parking, he said.

Fellow consultant Darren Meyer said buildings set close to the street tend to slow down traffic.

Sauer said many neighborhoods with wide lawns and trees are "very walkable and very pleasant."

MPC chairman Richard Hunter drew the discussion to an end, saying not everyone will agree on every aspect.

"We're not going to solve this problem," Hunter said.

Another issue that has been a cause for concern is the possible connection of a new development with Evening Street. Everyone seems to share a concern about creating more traffic in a residential neighborhood.

The recommended wording that will be received by council is: "The objective of these new connections is to interconnect this site but strongly discourage cut-through vehicular traffic from High Street and commercial office uses through the Worthington Estates neighborhood."

Other controversial aspects of the proposal include alleys.

MKSK continues to recommend alleys behind residences as a way to create walkable streets. The consultant also continues to discourage cul-de-sacs but removed "strongly" at the recommendation of MPC.

Some members have said they believe cul-de-sacs could help discourage cut-through traffic and that walkways could connect cul-de-sacs to other streets to encourage walkability.

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