Gambier Village Council denied zoning requests from Kenyon at a contentious public hearing on Monday, delaying the College’s plans for new housing and a market downtown.
Though the Council approved the request to replace the Black Box Theater with a commercial building on a parcel less than 50 feet wide, it rejected three other variances related to the height, width and square footage of the project.
Council also rejected setback and height variances for three North Campus Apartment-style houses on the former site of the Gambier Grill. The buildings would have exceeded the zoning code’s 30-foot height limit by about four feet and the property border by 15 feet to the north and two to the south.
At the Council’s regular meeting, held after the hearing, Councilman Kirk Emmert chastised those who voted against the Black Box variances, calling the decision “a visceral reaction.”
“When you deny the setback changes, they can’t build anything there,” Emmert told the Council. “That’s what you’ve done.”
Chief Business Officer Mark Kohlman, who presented plans after President Sean Decatur outlined the College’s vision to revitalize the Village, accused Council of adopting a double standard when it came to requests from Kenyon.
“I want to understand from you all what it is we have to do, given that there’s a clear distinction between the way you approve variances from property owners other than the College and the way you approve variances or consider variances for the College,” Kohlman said at Council’s regular meeting.
Gambier Mayor Kachen Kimmell urged the Council to consider whether the Village was making variance decisions unfairly.
“We need the legal answer to this question,” Kimmel said. “There actually is an issue if we are treating one property owner in our town differently in the way we grant variances than any other property owner. I think the facts are a problem for us, guys.”
In an email to the Collegian Wednesday, Decatur wrote, “We’ll be returning to the Village Council with modified plans, and I am confident that we will find a way to move the plans forward.”
Dozens of villagers and about five students showed up at the gym in the Gambier Community Center for the public hearing. Attendees voiced their thoughts on the College’s plans — particularly regarding the replacement of the Black Box, which formerly housed the People’s Bank, which is now on Wiggin Street.
Villager Martha Melick said the proposed building’s proximity to the street and sidewalk would make it resemble “a block in New York City.”
“It’s not really looking like the Village of Gambier on that corner anymore,” she said.
Bruce Dingman, who, as postmaster at the Gambier Post Office, works adjacent to the proposed project, said he had no problem the plans.
“Whatever they’re going to do is going to look good,” Dingman said.
Decatur said the Black Box “has historically been a commercial building” that “now only has intermittent use by the College,” an assessment which Professor of Drama and Playwright-in-Residence Wendy MacLeod disputed.
“It’s not intermittent use,” she said. “It’s constant use by student theater groups.”
Councilmembers Betsy Heer, Donna Scott and Liz Forman opposed most of the variances, with Emmert approving all and Councilman Juan Pastor approving some. Councilman Sam Filkins recused himself because he works for the College as assistant director of student engagement for leadership.
At the outset, Kimmell wondered aloud whether Forman should also recuse herself, since she has taught for The Kenyon Review’s Young Writers program. After Kimmell directed attorney Zachary DiMarco, filling in for Village Solicitor Clinton Bailey, to read the legal consequences for a breach of ethics, Forman denied any conflict of interest and said her work for the College was on a case-by-case basis.
“I’ll take my chances,” Forman said. “I have no idea whether I’ll be given a contract.”