When the College went before the Village Council this week, it sought six variances for its planned construction of housing on the site of the former Gambier Grill, and a market and housing complex where the Black Box Theater currently sits.
These variances are required because the heights of the proposed buildings, footprint on their lots and the width and square footage of the market do not conform with the Village’s zoning code.
But when council denied most of these, it wasn’t clear the decision-making was entirely considerate of how the College planned to move ahead with its plans. Council enabled the College to put a building on the Black Box land — but a building so constricted it rendered the permission a moot point.
As Chief Business Officer Mark Kohlman told Council, “We’re now stuck with a building that at its most can be 22 feet wide and 35 feet long. I mean, there won’t be a practical use for what we can do there.”
The Village’s zoning code requires that a building downtown — which cannot exceed 30 feet in height — be measured from its lowest point. Kohlman asked Council to reevaluate this rule since it would mean “we will not be able to replace Farr Hall.” As the building would have to be measured from its lowest point, “the front of the building is going to be about five feet high,” Kohlman said.
While the Council just recently underwent an update to its zoning code, it is clear there are significant issues with its rules — ones that make it near impossible to construct new buildings downtown. While the code does not ban new buildings downtown, it now makes it unfeasible to do so.
Still, the College will move forward with its plans — regardless of what Villagers think. That was made clear at the variance hearing, where at least a few community members voiced opposition to the College’s housing and market plans. Unlike the College’s ability to construct buildings downtown — which Council’s interpretation of the zoning code has made fuzzy — the ability for any property owner to demolish buildings is crystal clear: Any owner has a right to tear down a building.
This reality points to the Village’s Planning and Zoning Commission’s profound lack of power. If Council considers adjusting the Village’s zoning code to make building possible, it should also consider making some demolition impossible. There are many historic buildings in Gambier, and it would be a shame if these were to be destroyed. The College’s plans to move the Snowden Multicultural Center theme housing to new housing behind Farr leaves the fate of that building on Chase Avenue up in the air. Colburn Hall, a former chapel library, was turned into a party space last year, and is being readily debauched by undergraduates. Will the College eventually seek its demolition once it becomes “unsafe”? This is why Council must reevaluate its zoning code once again — for the good of the College, and of Gambier.