Will woeful Woodland Meadows become Bexleys Field of Dreams?

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Messenger photo by John Matuszak

A group of Bexley residents want to turn the 53 acres once occupied by the crumbling and crime-ridden Woodland Meadows apartments into a park and athletic fields. The proposal had a hearing before the school board and City Council April 10, and received a positive response from officials and residents.

It’s been called the Greenbriar, then Woodland Meadows, and was known derisively as "Uzi Alley" for the frequent gunfire within its boundaries.

After the demolition of its dilapidated apartment buildings last year, it’s a 53-acre vacant lot that a group of Bexley residents want to turn into park land and athletic fields.

"We will never see an opportunity like this again in our lifetime," Bexley Mayor John Brennan declared at the April 10 meeting of City Council and the school board to hear athletic booster Paul Kolada’s vision for the property.

The proposal received a positive response from around 100 Bexley and Columbus residents who attended, and the school board and council offered to draft resolutions endorsing the further exploration of the project.

One of the major details will be financing. Kolada didn’t have specifics at this point on what it would cost to purchase the property or to build on it.

Land in that area typically sells for around $50,000 to $80,000 an acre, he said.

And acquiring the land that is in foreclosure will be complicated, Kolada conceded, with bond holders having liens on the property, and Columbus seeking to recoup the $2.5 million it spent to tear down the apartment buildings.

A sheriff’s sale is scheduled in six weeks, and Kolada is confident that a serious proposal from Bexley could be ready by that time.

One thing everybody agreed on – landlocked Bexley is in desperate need of space for athletics and other recreational activities.

Brennan recalled that when he came to Bexley in 1971, there were three athletic fields available, at Cassingham, Montrose and Maryland schools.

Today, 37 years later, Bexley kids have even less space to play, the mayor, a former recreation director for Bexley and Hilliard, said.

The school district is squeezed, as well. The average high school sits on 40 to 55 acres, middle schools occupy 20 to 35 acres and elementary buildings are situated on 10 to 15 acres, Kolada explained.

Bexley’s Cassingham complex includes a high school, middle school and elementary school on 14.3 acres.

As a result of the lack of athletic field space, students are spread out at Wolfe Park, Clowson Field, and the Jewish Community Center.

The Woodland Meadows property has enough room for four baseball fields, eight tennis courts, two soccer fields, and a jogging track, Kolada said.

It could also accommodate a community center, a skate park, a community garden, a dog park, and an amphitheater.

Moving the softball fields from the Cassingham site would make room for the natatorium proposed by another Bexley resident, Michael Stickney, Kolada said.

The 18 acres closest to James Road could be reserved for future retail and commercial development, or could be used for a senior center or a veterans park to complement the Veterans Administration hospital being built nearby, Kolada said.

None of this is going to happen overnight, he acknowledged. "I encourage you to think long-term. This is a solution for our grandkids."

Is it safe?

Security shouldn’t be a concern, Kolada assured residents, since the area has seen an 80 percent drop in crime since 2004.

Bexley resident Larry Ruben, owner of 324 apartments in the neighborhood, agreed that the area is safe. His company, Plaza Properties, has its main office there.

Ruben grew up about three blocks from Woodland Meadows "and I have never left. It has always been a great neighborhood."

The lot is only 155 yards from Bexley’s northeastern boundary, Kolada pointed out.

Ruben, who built the Bexley Gateway project, said the property is not attractive for commercial development, and the best use for it is a park.

It’s not too big a leap to imagine the tree-dotted lot now surrounded by chain-link fencing as a community park, Bexley resident Chris Kondracke offered.

He pointed out that the location of the Jewish Community Center was a landfill that was deeded to the organization 103 years ago.

He called Kolada’s proposal "long overdue."

The recommendations had the backing of Columbus residents, as well.

Diane Middleton, with the North Eastmoor Civic Association, endorsed the plan as long as it included everyone.

"Make it beautiful, make it accessible, and I think we’ll be neighbors for a long time," she said.

Official reaction

School and city officials agreed that there are considerable hurdles to getting the project off the ground, but that it was worth exploring.

"In an ideal world, it’s a great idea," school board Vice President Andy Sutter said. "I don’t want to let it slip through our fingers. I don’t want to see us give up on the idea until we’re sure it’s not possible."

City Councilman Mark Masser reminded residents that Bexley is looking at several major projects, including the construction of a new police station and renovations to Jeffrey Mansion.

In addition, the school district is expected to seek a levy in two years and the city is going to need additional tax money "sooner than later," Masser said.

It will be up to the residents to decide what is most important, the councilman continued. "Help me prioritize the importance of this. Are you willing to give up something to buy this property?"

Columbus Development Director Boyce Safford attended the meeting. His office, along with representatives of Mayor Michael Coleman, have held preliminary discussions with Kolada.

Safford said he recognizes the concerns of residents that developers "not repeat the mistakes of the past" by constructing high-density housing.

And while tax-generating commercial development would be advantageous, "we want to do what’s best for the community," Safford said.

The school board and council were expected to introduce resolutions of support for the formation of an exploration committee in the next week.

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