Hilltop community has concerns about city parking lot plan

 By Dedra Cordle

Staff Writer

The Highland West community wants to be involved with city plans to develop vacant properties in the neighborhood. The Greater Hilltop Area Commission is throwing its support behind the effort.

At its meeting in December, Shelly Casto, executive director of the Highland Youth Garden, addressed the commissioners regarding community concerns over the planned redevelopment of 66 S. Highland Ave. and the uninhabited properties that surround the site.

The parcels sit immediately to the south of Highland Elementary School and are adjacent to the Hilltop Early Learning Center and the J. Ashburn Jr. Youth Center. When they are combined, these parcels represent a total of 1.4 acres of land – all of which has been slated to be converted into a parking lot.

“That is a heck of a lot of parking in a residential neighborhood,” said Casto.

She acknowledged that there is a need for additional parking in the area, especially since the Hilltop Early Learning Center has yet to reach maximum staffing levels and enrollment numbers. However, she believes that creating a parking lot on that 1.4-acre plot of land would be a waste of potentially usable green space for the children in the community.

“We do need that additional parking but I think we are pretty far away from needing 1.4 acres of parking (in this neighborhood),” she said.

Since learning of the plans to put a parking lot at 66 S. Highland Ave. and the surrounding vacant properties two months ago, Casto said she has sought the support of residents, community stakeholders, and local civic associations in an attempt to garner enough attention from the city so they could “get a seat at the table” before construction got underway. She said she has been successful thus far in rallying support from the community but not quite as successful in her attempt to get support from the city.

“I have had two conversations (with city representatives) and they have both indicated that if there is an opportunity for discussion then I will be informed,” she said.

Recently, Casto said construction equipment has been unloaded onto the site and contractors have marked the property.

“They are doing earthwork, they have put up fencing around the property, and we are starting to get pretty nervous here,” she said.

Several commissioners said they were unaware of city plans to develop the vacant properties in the Highland West neighborhood, but wanted clarification as to whether Casto was calling for the local advisory board to request that the project be halted altogether.

Casto said she was not asking for that, nor does she want the city to release ownership of the lot or bequeath it to the Highland Youth Garden, Highland Elementary School, or any others in the “educational consortium” in the neighborhood.

“We do not want to take it over nor do we necessarily have clear plans for the site, but rather we are asking for support for those of us who work so hard to engage the community and teach the children to have a seat at the table in terms of what does happen in that plot,” she said.

She added to that statement that the educational consortium might have “some ideas” for the land that borders multiple childhood education and enrichment centers.

“We would love to see a small green space there, just a fifth or a quarter of that land could be turned into a playground space,” she said, stating that the HYG could even help contribute to the funding for that effort.

“I also need to note that Highland Elementary School did lose some play space, outdoor play space, with the construction of the city-owned (Hilltop) Early Learning Center and I think that we owe those kids some green space.”

The commission unanimously voted to support the community-led effort to “get a seat at the table” in regard to city discussions over the neighborhood plot. They also unanimously voted to send a separate letter to the city seeking more information on the redevelopment plans for the site. The commission said they would like to invite a city representative to a full commission meeting or a committee meeting so they can discuss the future land use of the vacant properties in the Highland West neighborhood.

Commissioner James White said he was frustrated by the city land use plans.

“How and why is this happening without any involvement from the commission?” he asked. “I just find it a little alarming that 1.4 acres of vacant lot is quickly being converted into a parking lot without any community buy-in.”

Commission chairman Dan Fagan agreed, adding that the commissioners do not even know when the project will start and how many parking spaces will be added to the lot that resides within a residential neighborhood.

After the meeting, the Columbus Messenger reached out to the city to ask for more information on land use plans at the site. Melanie Crabill, the director of media relations with the city of Columbus, confirmed that the site will be converted to public parking space.

“After lengthy negotiations, the city of Columbus recently acquired the parcel in question with the intent to provide ample, safe parking for the children and families attending the Hilltop Learning Center, and for the professional and support staff serving the community,” she said in a written statement. “The addition of the parking lot is expected to provide approximately 130 parking spaces to lessen the burden on the surrounding neighborhood and better meet the needs of pre-k families and staff.”

She added that the city will engage with the community regarding the development plans.

“We fully expect to engage neighborhood groups in advance of construction of the parking lot, and while parking is the primary reason the city purchased the property, we will not completely rule out other ideas compatible with parking that might enhance the neighborhood.”

In other news from the meeting, the full commission will convene on Wednesday, Jan. 3 at 6:30 p.m. due to the Columbus Metropolitan Library holiday closure. It will take place at the CML: Hilltop Branch, located at 511 S. Hague Ave.


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