One of the most desired and contested development sites in central Ohio has again landed on the front burner.

A Worthington group has presented petitions signed by 1,000 residents asking the city to buy the 37-acre United Methodist Children's Home property to develop into a park.

Critics say the city needs new houses and can't afford to build a park. The developer Lifestyle Communities is in contract to buy the property but is mum on its plans.

The group of residents submitted the petition to the Worthington City Council on Oct. 7 asking the city to consider purchasing the 37-acre United Methodist Children's Home property on High Street and converting most of it into a park with an amphitheater and community building.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity ... to create parkland that will benefit all age ranges," said Andy Hutter, one of the three leaders of the group circulating the petition for what they call Project Community Park Worthington.

The move is the latest twist involving the property, which has become a touchstone in central Ohio development debates. The property, immediately north of downtown Worthington, is considered one of central Ohio's most desirable undeveloped parcels.

Columbus developer Lifestyle Communities is in contract to buy the property from the United Methodist Children's Home. In 2015, Lifestyle presented a concept to develop offices, apartments, small ranch ("patio") houses and single-family houses on the property. After the proposal was initially criticized as being too dense, Lifestyle retreated and has yet to submit a development plan to the city.

Lifestyle representatives declined to comment on its plans for the property.

The petition, signed by 1,000 residents, asks that a 28-acre park be developed on the site and eventually include a multi-use building, outdoor amphitheater, community garden, athletic field and walking trails. The balance of the property, fronting High Street, could be sold for commercial development.

In 2016, OhioHealth said it was interested in building a 20,000-square-foot office building on the site but has not pursued the project.

Proponents say a park could be developed without new taxes through fundraisers, grants and income taxes collected from workers in the commercial development along High Street. They estimate the 28 acres for the park could be purchased for about $5 million -- slightly less than half of what Lifestyle is thought to be paying for the entire 37-acre parcel.

"Income from the development would more than pay for the acquisition, and maybe development and maintenance, of the park," said David Robinson, a Worthington City Council member who supports the proposal. "I know we can do it, if we want to do it. ... Once this land is purchased and developed, it's gone forever. And we don't need to do it all at once. It could be done over time."

Others say the property is unavailable and that the financing plan is unrealistic, especially since the city is struggling with the loss of income tax revenue from the vacant Anthem office building on High Street.

"We have folks asking the city to purchase land that is not for sale and at a price which, given the rarity of the opportunity of the land, is well below market," said Jon Melchi, a Worthington resident and executive director of the Building Industry Association of Central Ohio.

Randy Arndt, an attorney with Ice Miller who represents the United Methodist Children's Home, declined to discuss details of its contract with Lifestyle, but said the children's home will seek to get fair market value for the property.

"That property was utilized to provide services for needy children for many decades," Arndt said. "The intent of UMCH is to sell the property at fair market value to meet their charitable mission."

Others say the city needs new houses, especially for empty-nesters and newcomers.

"A lot of people, like my wife and I, are living in 3,000-square-foot homes with no children and would like homes that are less labor-intensive," said Mick Ball, who leads a community group called Building Worthington's Future, which supports development on the site. "We'd like to stay in Worthington, but there's just not much available. ... What we hear is people want housing."

Hutter said his group's proposal would allow a strip of 36 to 48 patio houses along the northern border of the park.

Lifestyle's proposal, by contrast, called for 350 apartments, and about 250 patio houses, town houses and larger single-family residences, in addition to a 5-acre green space along a ravine on the south edge of the property.

Ball said Jode Ballard, Lifestyle director of development, made it clear in a June meeting with the Building Worthington's Future group that Lifestyle intends to develop the property. In June, Lifestyle bought two houses on Larrimer Avenue next to the Methodist property, adding half an acre to the development site.

Robinson and other city observers said they expect Lifestyle to present a plan for the property after Worthington's city council elections next month.

Robinson said he could imagine no proposal from Lifestyle that he would support. Hutter said if the city rezones the property for development, park supporters will fight the rezoning through a referendum.

"There will be a lot of pushback if Lifestyle comes back with another proposal like 2015," he said.

One thing both sides agree on is the rarity of the property. As Robinson puts it, "This is the prime undeveloped location inside the Outerbelt."

jweiker@dispatch.com

@JimWeiker