A request to rezone the site of Worthington's Holiday Inn was canceled at the last minute, but the massive redevelopment project associated with it has not stalled, according to property managers.
The rezoning application for 7007 N. High St. was taken off the Worthington City Council docket at a Sept. 5 meeting.
It would have converted the 7.5-acre property from a "highway and automotive services" designation to the "WBC-3" mixed-use designation created by the Wilson Bridge Corridor zoning plan in 2016. The plan was "intended to foster development that strengthens land use and economic value," according to a memo from Lee Brown, Worthington's planning and building director.
The application was withdrawn at the request of the property managers from Witness Hospitality -- formerly Alliance Hospitality -- who are in the process of redeveloping the site into two hotels and a mixed-use district. The project was expected to start this summer but was pushed back to mid-2018 after the company's use of the Holiday Inn brand was extended.
"Having this rezoned was something that was more as a courtesy to the planning department, just because they want to fulfill their master plan," Witness CEO Ohm Patel said. "So we can always come back to it at a later time. We still plan to do all the improvements."
Brown said the site did not need to be rezoned for the project to continue.
"The end result will be the same," he said. "It's just going to be a different process to get to it."
Patel said the withdrawn rezoning application represents "no change in our strategy at all," but it represents a larger issue for him and other developers.
"The thing I find unique to Worthington is that processes for development are held hostage for political gain," he said. "That really sets back the city's ability to function efficiently. That's what's stifled development in this community.
"And this whole time, I've been trying to stay away from that by doing as much outreach as I can and be really transparent about what we're trying to accomplish here."
City Council President Bonnie Michael said the issue had not received more scrutiny than "any other" zoning issue that comes before council.
She said she had "no idea" what political concerns Patel might have.
Zoning in Worthington has been a hot-button topic since voters approved Issue 38 in the November 2015 election. The measure gave residents 60 days to petition for a referendum on zoning decisions made by City Council, a 40-day increase from the previous time limit.
The issue came in the wake of proposals for the United Methodist Children's Home site, a 42-acre plot at 1033 High St. that has been a divisive subject since it was abandoned in 2010. A number of proposals -- from a Giant Eagle to a large, mixed-use development -- have been proposed, largely to the dismay of residents. The most recent development was the approval of an OhioHealth emergency room on a small portion of the site.
Patel said he did not want to go into detail about whose "political gain" he was interested in avoiding or what prompted his statements, but he specified that he had had no problems with City Council members or Worthington officials.
"I just don't want this property to be at the center of attention for someone else's political gain," he said. "At the end of the day, for us, it's a case of wanting to be here to do a project in Worthington that will bring strong economic value to the community and offer something, in terms of development, that Worthington has needed for a long time."
Brown said his department has not heard much pushback on plans for the Holiday Inn site.
He said when the issue was considered by the planning commission – which recommended its approval – only one audience member asked questions.
But before the topic would have been discussed at City Council, Brown said, he did notice a larger-than-usual crowd apparently ready to speak on the topic.
"I was kind of shocked when I looked out in the audience and saw something like 18 people," he said.
They never got their chance to speak because the rezoning was removed from the agenda altogether, Brown said. City officials did not know whether they were in support or opposition of the rezoning, he said.
Patel said although plans should continue as expected, he was frustrated about the process.
He said he "doesn't have a negative opinion" about city staff members or Worthington's operations, but he "needs the city's help" on an "economic-stimulus package" that needs to go "beyond hypotheticals."
"It's a case of how aggressive we are and how aggressive they are," he said. "Now we've reached the time where we really need to start getting into details and really working and bringing solutions to the table. ... Time will tell. Up until now, the city has been great. But now it's a time to really get aggressive and execute on what we need to do."
Patel said his main concern is losing the rights to a brand name for one of the two planned hotels on the redeveloped site if someone in a nearby municipality presents the chain with a better development option.
He said he doesn't want to "settle" for a brand that attracts less interest, and he did not want to "put the city in a position where they're getting a B-rated brand when they could get an A-rated brand."
"We do know what it takes to develop in Worthington and we do know that things are looked at very critically," he said. "That's a good thing, but at the same time it can be a bad thing, too, depending on circumstances."