Most people don’t want landfills, methadone clinics, or for that matter, Robert Downey Jr. in their backyards. But who would predict that an art school would generate opposition?
Well, as the Watkins College of Art and Design looks at purchasing the nine-acre West End campus that Free Will Baptist Bible College plans to vacate, residents of the upper-middle-class Richland-West End neighborhood are showing early signs of dissent. Fearing that a potentially larger university would heighten traffic and parking problems in an area already clogged with Volvos and SUVs, the residents are drawing a line in the sand.
Attorney Jim Kelley lives near the Free Will campus and is working with Watkins on behalf of the Richland West End Neighborhood Association. “We have told Watkins that if they stay the same size as Free Will, they would be a good neighbor,” he says.
But Watkins does not plan to remain the same size as Free Will, and therein lies the problem. The school currently has 340 students, about 60 fewer than Free Will has now. But Watkins anticipates that within a few years, its student body could grow to as many as 550 students. That means more cars cruising in the neighborhood and fewer parking spaces along the tree-lined streets.
“I have told them, quite frankly, that there is a level of impact the community will support, but there is a level of impact the community will oppose,” says area Metro Council member John Summers. “It’s in Watkins’ best interest to do a very serious, hard, self-evaluation as to whether or not they can realistically do what they need to do with that property.”
Watkins officials say they are doing just that. Officials for the art school have signed a letter of intent to buy the propertythe price tag is in the neighborhood of $14 millionand school officials are currently examining whether the historic campus can meet their needs. The school is also conducting a traffic study and developing a parking plan.
Watkins president Jim Brooks says that the school can expand without affecting the neighborhood’s quality of life. “I do think we will grow, and we’re looking at that property really carefully to see how many students it will comfortably accommodate,” he says. “We certainly want to be sensitive to the concerns of the neighborhood, and in fact, it’s the quality of the neighborhood that makes that property attractive.”
Sam Stumpf, the chairman of the Watkins Board of Trustees, says that the school’s relocation to the Free Will campus would be a “net positive.” He says that Watkins would put on such cultural amenities as film screenings and art exhibitions that would be open to the neighborhood.
But the residents grumble that those events would bring more traffic to their streets. And while school officials say that the Free Will campus was once home to as many as 600 students, local residents say that was back in the 1970s when the neighborhood had more rental properties to absorb the students. Finally, while school officials have talked about staggering classes to dilute the flow of traffic, residents counter that only creates more problems, more often.
School officials and the neighbors clearly are trying to say the right things. They talk about “working together,” and “finding common ground.” But there might not be even a patch of common ground if the neighbors insist that Watkins keep its student population on par with Free Will’s. If the school wants to grow, it’s not clear what the locals can do about it. Watkins officials say that while the Free Will campus is zoned residential, the variances that allowed it to operate it as a college would remain if Watkins buys the property.
So while the Richland West End Neighborhood Association has formed a negotiating committee to work with Watkins, the committee isn’t exactly negotiating from a position of strength. Watkins, it seems, has no obligation to play nice with neighbors and could move right in whenever it wants.
There is a definite advantage to a Watkins purchase. For one, the school is as interested in the buildings as it is in the property. School officials plan to utilize and renovate the ailing historic buildings on campus. A private developer, however, might be more inclined to build new homes and units and tear down the stately structures that distinguish the campus, and for that matter, the rest of the neighborhood.
Of course, from Watkins’ standpoint, any kind of heated dispute with the neighbors will hurt the fund-raising efforts needed to buy the property in the first place. School officials hope to have an agreement in place by the end of the summer. Free Will plans to move to its new campus in Joelton in two years, and by then, Watkins will put money down to buy the property. At that time, school officials would like to have the blessing of the neighbors.
“There is a certain boundary there,” Summers says, not just about the Baptist college’s physical boundaries but also about its impact on the neighborhood. “If Watkins tries to expand those boundaries behind the current school, there will be very, very strong opposition. And that’s not good for the school or the community.”
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