College Hill: City Council to hold meeting to decide if area is blighted

Julie Knapp

At last Tuesday’s Topeka City Council meeting, a public hearing was held to determine whether or not the College Hill neighborhood should be considered blighted, so that developers can take advantage of approximately $4 million in tax increment financing.

The controversy brought approximately 15 speakers to the public hearing to convince council members on whether the area constitutes a liability to Topeka.

In order to deem the area blighted, the council must find the neighborhood impaired in a majority of nine different ways. According to the firm Richard Caplan and Associates, who was hired by the developers to survey the area, it meets these guidelines in eight different ways.

Caplan, who according to city councilmember Clark Duffy has a good report with the city, said that over 60 percent of the parcels in the neighborhood are considered blighted.

“[College Hill] is not the kind of environment that is competitive today, and will be even less competitive in the future,” said Caplan.

While the Washburn Student Government Association and President Farley support this redevelopment plan immensely, the only representative from Washburn who spoke at the hearing was David Monical, director of government relations at Washburn.

“That area has been a source of concern for our faculty, staff and students for a number of years,” said Monical.

However, some businesses that still exist in College Hill believe the study misrepresented the neighborhood, citing that directions in the study were wrong as well as facts about handicap curb cuts.

The owner of Oscars, Jeanne Swanson, said that she had spent thousands of dollars in the past decade to keep her business up to code and have it serve as a good environment for the neighborhood. She said she spent $50,000 on a redesign nine years ago, and since then has spent a couple thousand dollars on a new fence around her business.

“I’m looking for my investment to be returned to me so that I can invest in the city of Topeka,” said Swanson.

Bob Sherburne, a resident of the neighborhood, said the Caplan study was biased, in favor of the developers, and economic growth around Washburn is in the future.

“The area is viable economically, if you’ll just spend your money there,” said Sherburne.

There are currently 40 property owners in the area, and Bob Newsome, of Southwind Capital LLC, said that they have contracts to purchase 37 of those properties so they can start redevelopment. At Tuesday’s City Council meeting only three of those property owners spoke – two of them saying the area wasn’t blighted, and one saying it was.

“We obviously don’t have 100 percent support, but I do think we have a wide consensus,” said Newsome.

The Topeka City Council is expected to vote on the issue this Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the City Council chambers.