July 19, 2023

Council Says “Not Yes” to Methodist Hospital Development

Monday night’s long-awaited deliberation and vote (or non-vote as it turned out) on the Methodist Hospital planned development application was unusual to say the least.  These are typically straightforward proceedings resulting in an up or down vote, often with conditions attached when a project is approved.  This one didn’t go that way.  As individual Council members stated their positions it was clear the proposal wouldn’t get enough votes to pass, but at the same time some members presented substantial modifications or even alternative designs they would vote for if the details could be worked out with the applicant.

Given those members’ interest in exploring such other possibilities, Council was reluctant to simply vote down the proposal in its entirety.  Both because we hope Methodist will continue to engage with us, and also to avoid potentially running afoul of a rule that would impose a two-year waiting period before any reconsideration.  But neither could we redesign the project on the fly from the dais, much less without input from the applicant or the public.

All of which led to a decidedly procedural, and decidedly unsatisfying outcome:  a motion to postpone the matter indefinitely as a means of avoiding voting against it.  In other words, “not yes” rather than “no.”

Still, it was a generally good discussion with some notable takeaways.  First, that Council remains committed to the vision expressed in our Comprehensive Plan and zoning regulations for the physical redevelopment of the Urban Village-Downtown (UV-D) district.  Granted, different people may have different ideas what that actually looks like and how to achieve it, something sure to be debated in our ongoing Comp Plan Review, but none questioned it as the proper starting point in analyzing the proposed development.

Another big takeaway was Council’s appreciation for Methodist and receptiveness to the notion it could have a place within the UV-D.  Even if this design didn’t quite fit with our vision for the district, the procedural vote Monday night was specifically to leave open the possibility that with some modifications we might be able to get there, and encouragement to Methodist to work with us on a mutually beneficial solution.  Constrained as we are by the zoning approval process, which is ultimately a matter of state law, it’s frustrating not to have been able to exchange ideas and reach agreement before it came up for final deliberation.  We hope Council’s feedback was nevertheless useful and that Methodist will take us up on our invitation to keep talking.

Also prominent was the huge impact the public had on this issue.  We received a tremendous amount of input, which Council members referenced and reflected in their own remarks, and which helped guide our evaluation of the proposal.  Even on points of disagreement, where reasonable minds may differ, Council had clearly listened and thought carefully about what the public had to say.  Public comment not only influenced and directly contributed to the resolution of this application, it will also serve to inform future decision making on the UV-D and the overall vision set forth in the Comp Plan.

So what happens next?  In the near term, that’s up to Methodist.  Again, we’d welcome their consideration of the alternative suggestions that were raised, if they’re still interested in pursuing this project.  If not, then our having turned down this proposal (or, at least, said “not yes”), the property will continue to sit vacant until the next development comes along.  And it may or may not be something we like better.  That’s always a risk, and it’s one that Council and several who submitted public comment readily acknowledge.

I’ll leave you with a final thought.  I’ve done my best here to describe what happened Monday night, and what Council was trying to get at with this result.  That it was so extraordinary only goes to show how difficult it was, and how unrealistic it is to expect that real-world projects will check every box perfectly in fulfilling our vision—or what we think is our vision even if we haven’t quite put our finger on it.  On a project-by-project basis no less, and without knowing what the market will actually bear until a proposal is brought forward.

In light of these challenges, I respectfully submit we should all be cognizant of the messages we send out to the development community in proceedings like this.  Much as it may be our public vision of what it is we’d like to see, those outcomes can be realized only through positive working relationships with the private developers and property owners who make them happen.  Perhaps a subject for discussion in the context of our Comprehensive Plan Review.