Bexleys Jeffrey Mansion plan draws criticism from residents

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 Messenger file photo

Bexley’s Jeffrey Mansion has been undergoing $1.3 million in exterior repairs to keep water from seeping in and damaging walls and ceilings. The Jeffrey Mansion Commission is recommending a $10 million makeover of the building and park, and management by a new board, in an effort to preserve the landmark location and make it financially self-sustaining.

After several years of discussion, a proposed $10 million master plan for Jeffrey Mansion and Park is in the hands of Bexley City Council.

It may prove to be a heavy load, after residents March 18 came down like a ton of bricks on some aspects of the plan, including permitting alcoholic beverages to be served at the mansion and the expansion of parking into woodlands.

Even Mayor John Brennan said he was "iffy" on the recommendation for alcohol consumption and is against losing trees in the park.

"We’ve talked compromise and talked compromise, and we haven’t gotten compromise," said Brennan, whose wife, Ann, a Jeffrey Mansion Commission member, cast the only dissenting vote on the final version.

Council members were presented with the report drafted and approved by the Jeffrey Mansion Commission, which has been meeting since November, 2006, to come up with guidelines for the restoration and management of the landmark that serves as the home of the parks and recreation department.

The plans calls for more than doubling the available activity space at the mansion, largely through refurbishing its four levels without a substantial addition, as well as enhancements in the park.

The blueprint is a way to make the mansion, which is in need of extensive repairs, self-sustaining without raising taxes, explained City Councilman Jeffrey McClelland, co-chairman of the commission.

The alternative is continued deterioration and under-utilization of the mansion, the councilman added. "I don’t want that to be my legacy."

Architects have recommended creating three entrances at the front of the mansion, to allow multiple events to take place at the same time. A courtyard at the north side of the mansion could be enclosed to provide space for up to 200 guests.

Some of that space would be used to generate revenue through rentals for private events, which the commission determined would require allowing alcohol to be served.

Attracting more visitors will require more parking, which the commission suggests could be constructed in wooded areas to the north and south of the mansion.

Alcohol consumption and sacrificing green space for parking generated the most objections from residents, who saw a preliminary draft of the plan in January.

"Mixing children and alcohol doesn’t get it," commented Barb Greiner, a parks and recreation department supervisor. "This is our community building. This is where our children grow up."

Resident Harvey Wasserman said that alcohol should not be permitted and financing should not be approved without a city-wide vote of residents.

Wasserman suggested that, as part of the renovations, solar panels could be installed for heating the mansion.

The parking issue was one reason why commission member Ann Brennan cast her  dissenting vote.

She likened the proposal to "literally, paving paradise to put up a parking lot."

Mayor Brennan estimated that as many as 116 trees could be lost for parking lots that would be used 20 times a year.

Management & financing

Commission co-chairman Pete Halliday, who has pushed for a plan to sustain the 102-year-old mansion, has proposed that private donors would pay the interest on the bonds, with the city paying the principal.

His goal is to raise $10 million, which he believes is feasible considering the number of top executives and wealthy families in Bexley.

The commission report estimates that income for the mansion from all sources is $788,550 a year.

Operating expenses are projected at $480,000, plus $292,000 in interest on a debt of $7.3 million.

The document recommends management of the mansion and grounds through a 13-member board that would include representatives from City Council, the parks and recreation board, the Bexley school board, the Bexley Historical Society, the Chamber of Commerce and two at-large members, along with five appointed members.

The next steps will be for City Council to adopt the master plan, and to create an ad hoc group to further the project.

That will require $110,000 in seed money, $40,000 of which would be paid to a temporary staff person to manage the new board. The remaining funds would be earmarked for feasibility studies for the mansion and the park, and legal and architectural fees.

The mayor thinks the $110,000 figure can be cut in half.

City Auditor Larry Heiser questioned sinking money into the mansion when council is struggling to finance the construction of a new police station, which he called Bexley’s number-one priority.

Councilman Ben Kessler agreed with Heiser on that point.

"I don’t know how we can have this conversation without knowing where the money is coming from," Kessler said.

Council President Matt Lampke directed the city attorney to draft a resolution to  adopt the master plan.

He promised that "no pavement will be laid, no trees will be removed, no alcohol will be poured" without further debate from council and discussion by the public.

The full draft of the plan can be viewed at www.bexley.org.

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