Controversial housing development in Springfield pushes ahead

A proposed Springfield housing development could be the first significant project of its kind in about two decades and provide more options for workers as new manufacturing firms have pledged to ramp up hiring.

The proposed project would build homes on 37 acres of property south of the Tuttle Road Walmart along with an additional 15-acre tract to the east of the Walmart. The project could include as many as 226 new homes for Springfield with prices potentially around the low $200,000 range, said Lance Oakes, a manager for DDC Management, the project’s developer. Construction could begin as early as March or April next year.

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Attracting new housing has been identified as one of the city’s top priorities as Springfield tries to encourage residents to live in the city instead of neighboring communities, said Tom Franzen, assistant city manager and director of economic development for Springfield. But it’s also important because if successful, it could be a signal to other developers, employers and retailers that Springfield is rebounding after years of fighting off an image of an aging, struggling community.

“We all want to see it be successful because it’s a signal to other investors that their projects will work here,” Franzen said.

But critics have raised concerns about zoning for the project, arguing it could lead to homes being packed too tightly together if the developer's initial plans don't pan out. Members of the Central CEDA Regional Planning Commission recommended against a proposed zoning change for the property earlier this summer.

Springfield’s city commissioners unanimously approved the zoning change last week allowing for residential development, despite the CEDA board’s recommendation.

“If we want additional services and jobs we have to grow as a city and we can’t grow without new housing,” said David Estrop, a Springfield city commissioner and former superintendent for Springfield City Schools. “It all goes together.”

Dispute over zoning

Members of the CEDA board want the project to be successful, but said the current zoning rules would allow homes to be packed too closely together if the developer’s initial plans fall through and they need to recoup their investment, said Dan Kelly, a CEDA board member who lives near the proposed development.

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Kelly wants to see the project succeed, he said. But he’s skeptical buyers will pay in the $200,000 range in Springfield for homes near a busy shopping center. The current zoning rules would allow as many as eight homes to be built on an acre of land, he said. He also said many homes in Springfield are priced closer to $110,000.

“So again I could see the Walmart project starting with good intention then fizzling out when those higher priced homes don’t sell,” Kelly said. “If this fails the next step is to sell a product that is marketable and that opens the door for the 8 units per acre and a lower priced product which will affect the property value of everyone living in that area.”

Kelly said some township residents living in the area have raised concerns the project will bring traffic, crime and other problems to the area surrounding the development. He said he’s not opposed to growth, but wants to see zoning that promotes a bigger lot size and more square footage.

“I think people in that neighborhood can expect boxes on top of each other and little green space,” Kelly said. “I hope I’m totally wrong and it’s a great development.”

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Oakes, of DDC Management, said there’s no intent to put eight homes on a single acre, and are instead looking at something closer to 4.5 units per acre. Oakes also said many of the $110,000 homes Kelly mentioned were built as many as 50 years ago. He said the company’s research indicated there will be plenty of buyers in the region needed to make the project a success.

Estrop said he was put off by some of the comments made by opponents of the project because they unfairly implied living in the city would bring crime and traffic problems. Estrop said he heard similar complaints when the Global Impact STEM Academy was being developed downtown several years ago when he was superintendent. That project was so successful attracting students the school now holds a lottery to determine which middle and high school students can enroll.

“If anything, I am offended by what some from Springfield Twp. have said,” Estrop said. “As a representative of the people of the City of Springfield, it is indeed disturbing, perhaps even tragic, that you want nothing to do with the many, many hardworking and good-hearted people of this city. I am proud to represent the people of Springfield and I will continue to support bringing new people, new homes, and new jobs to our city.”

Need for new housing

Economic development officials in both Clark and Champaign counties have previously told the News-Sun a lack of newer homes has made it more challenging to draw new business and encourage skilled workers to live in both counties.

The region has struggled to attract new housing for years, and that’s also led to challenges attracting other types of development, said Michael McDorman, president and CEO of the Chamber of Greater Springfield. Earlier this year, Kroger backed out of a proposed project to build a roughly $20 million Kroger Marketplace store in Springfield’s southern corridor.

The city and chamber have also worked together to attract companies like Silfex and Topre America Corp. to Clark County, with the promise of adding millions in investment and hundreds of new jobs. Topre is an auto parts manufacturer that has said it will make a total investment of about $130 million, with a projected total workforce just shy of 300 employees.

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Silfex makes silicon products for a variety of markets and is renovating a 350,000-square-foot warehouse near the PrimeOhio Industrial Park that previously housed the former Thirty-One Gifts plant. That company has committed to invest more than $220 million and create more than 400 new jobs.

The city needs to provide adequate housing options if it wants those workers to choose to live in Springfield instead of communities outside Clark County, McDorman said.

“We are excited about the work the city is doing to address the housing issues affecting our community,” he said. “There’s no silver bullet, but this is a huge step forward.”

The new jobs were a key factor that made DDC Management consider investing in the project, Oakes said. Along with new jobs at Topre and Silfex though, he said Springfield has skilled workers at employers like the Springfield Regional Medical Center and Clark State Community College that would potentially buy homes if more options were available.

Oakes said Springfield also has a large number of renters who are paying prices above what they might pay for a new home.

“If you can give those renters an option where that monthly payment is going toward equity in a home, we think we can be successful here,” Oakes said.

It’s not uncommon now for buyers to look for homes in Springfield, only to give up and move to other cities when they can’t find what they’re looking for, said Sunny Dhingra, president of the Springfield Board of Realtors.

“What’s the point of creating jobs if the people don’t live here,” he said.

Next steps

City officials and DDC Management are working through the next phases to push the project ahead, Oakes said. He said the goal is to complete engineering studies and close on the property by the end of the year. Construction could start as early as next spring.

The city is also working with the developers to determine financing for the project. The developers are considering a request for Tax Increment Financing to provide funding for DDC Management to build roads in the residential area. Funding would come out of the residential taxes normally earmarked for the Clark-Shawnee school system.

Franzen said the city can approve a proposal with 75 percent of residential property taxes for new homes in the development going to the project and the remaining 25 percent going to the district for up to 10 years. Anything longer however would need approval from Clark-Shawnee’s school board. However, Franzen said no decisions have yet been made on what financing for the development might look like.

The district has had discussions with DDC and the city, said Brian Kuhn, superintendent at Clark-Shawnee. The district has also conducted some initial research to determine how various scenarios might impact the district’s finances. It’s not clear however, whether the district will have any role in the decision until the city and developers decide how to fund the project, Kuhn said.

“Our job is to operate the schools and make sure we use the tax dollars wisely,” Kuhn said.

Franzen said the project could encourage other new housing projects in the city if buyers show interest.

“It’s a big project,” Franzen said. “It’s important to the community.”

The Springfield News-Sun has provided extensive coverage of housing and development issues in Clark and Champaign Counties this year. The paper has spoken to developers about the challenges they facce in building new homes, as well as efforts to spur investment in towns like Bellefontaine and Urbana. For this story, the paper spoke to city officials, developers and opponents about a new housing development that is moving forward in Springfield.

By the numbers:

200 - Possible lots in the project area

52 — Total acres in the project area

1990s — Last time a large housing development was built in Springfield

$200,000 — Possible starting price range

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