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Tension flares over Washington U.'s land purchases Some residents say university's expansion into Skinker Heights has strained relations.

Tension flares over Washington U.'s land purchases Some residents say university's expansion into Skinker Heights has strained relations.

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CLAYTON - When Doug and Cindy Murdoch wanted to buy a house and raise a family, they bought on quiet Wydown Boulevard here, one of the area's prettiest streets in a top school district next to Washington University.

Among its ivy and red granite, they and their two young children have access to art, music, dance and public lectures.

"Washington University is a wonderful academic institution steeped in tradition and heritage," Doug Murdoch said. "My mother went there and I have friends who went there ... and we welcome them as our neighbor. There's a mutual benefit, a symbiotic relationship."

But over the last few years, Murdoch and some of his neighbors say, that relationship has become strained, as the university has expanded its real estate holdings deeper into the Skinker Heights neighborhood.

Murdoch said that Washington University had "overstepped the delicate balance."

Last month, tension erupted at a Clayton School Board meeting over a proposed land swap in which the school district would trade its Wydown Middle School and two other properties for the university's old CBC property on Clayton Road.

Eric Lederman, chairman of the Skinker Heights Neighborhood Association and one of several opponents to speak at the meeting, told the board: "From a neighborhood preservation standpoint, we are about as against it as we could possibly be."

Afterward, Murdoch, the owner of Spicer's toy store and whose children will attend Wydown, said of the university: "They have their sights on taking as much property in our neighborhood as they can.

"They have become a silent aggressor."

The school property swap, however, was proposed by the Clayton School District, he noted.

University officials point out they own only five properties in Skinker Heights. In each sale, the university says, it was approached by the owner, and has passed on other offers. It says its real estate holdings - from those on Forsyth Boulevard in Clayton to the Washington University Medical Center to commercial areas around the university - have undeniably been a positive force on the area.

"We are a great economic benefit to the St. Louis area, and one of the largest employers in the region," said Hank Webber, the university's executive vice chancellor of administration.

Webber said tension was inevitable between an urban university and its neighbors. Indeed, criticism has been levied against St. Louis University as it has expanded in the city's midtown area.

Webber said neighborhood relations were a priority for the university, with a department devoted to the issue and urban revitalization projects.

"I am quite sure our neighbors believe that the strength of the university is important to them as well," Webber said.


Since 1995, Washington University has added 2,000 students, bringing enrollment to 13,507, and 3,000 jobs, bringing employment to 11,680.

To house some of those people, it has purchased many off-campus single-family homes, duplexes and apartment buildings - 11 in Clayton, 53 in the city and 121 in University City.

It also owns several commercial properties - with one of the largest being its 1991 purchase of the old Clayton Famous-Barr for $17.5 million. All those purchases have an impact: The university's not-for-profit status removes them from the property tax rolls.

In the case of the Famous-Barr property - once valued at $30 million - only the ground-floor property used by commercial business tenants is listed on the tax rolls.

In 2007, the university paid Clayton, University City and the city of St. Louis a combined $247,337 in real estate taxes for commercial properties not used for educational purposes, officials have said.

The university last year bought two residences in Skinker Heights, paying $1.66 million to Mark and Phoebe Weil for their house at 7 University Lane, and $1.6 million to John and Cynthia Csernansky for their house at 6465 Ellenwood Avenue. The owners of those two houses paid more than $34,000 in property taxes in 2008, with 53 percent of that going to the Clayton School District.

Chris Tennill, a spokesman for the district, said he did not have a firm estimate of how much Washington U.'s property purchases and other nonprofits cost the school district.

"We worry more about TIFs (tax-increment financing districts) and property tax abatements than we do about nonprofits," Tennill said, while adding that every loss was a concern.

Clayton Mayor Linda Goldstein said that 26 percent of that city's property was owned by educational, charitable or religious nonprofit groups.

She called Washington U. a "tremendous asset to the city of Clayton and the entire region," and said nonprofits in general "lend diversity and vitality to our community,"

She added, though, "Whenever an institution extends its property holdings, it places an even heavier financial burden on our residents."

The university pays Clayton about $170,000 a year for fire services in the unincorporated part of the main campus.

University City school officials also said they did not have a precise figure on how much Washington U.'s property purchases affected district revenue.

But Chauna Williams, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said the schools were helped in myriad ways by the university, with volunteers, literacy programs and professional development of staff.

Julie Feier, city manager of University City, estimated that the city was losing $140,000 annually in property tax revenue from Washington U.'s purchases.

But she said the city came out way ahead in other ways - from art and social work endeavors, direct financial assistance for the police and other city departments, improvement of real estate and employment of many residents.

Joe Edwards, the owner of Blueberry Hill and the Pageant and a leader in re-energizing of the Delmar Loop, said that people forgot that the Loop and the Central West End were declining in the 1960s and 1970s and that the university helped stabilize both.

"These areas might not have survived the way they have without Washington University as an anchor," Edwards said.


When the subject is residential property, the tone changes.

Late in 2007, a firestorm erupted when the university purchased six single-family homes in a quiet century-old neighborhood of two-story homes called West Portland Place in University City. Neighbors feared the university intended to expand its Millbrook Plaza commercial area and move in undergraduate students.

A year ago, the university halted its expansion and said it would use the properties for faculty, staff and graduate housing.

Over in the Wydown area, similar criticisms are expressed. Tom Currier, who lives off Wydown, calls the university's actions "insidious creep."

"Washington University is an extremely powerful and wealthy institution that is constantly working to assure the future expansion of its hilltop campus at the expense of encroaching on fine surrounding neighborhoods," Currier told the Clayton Board of Aldermen recently.

He said that greatness did not include "scheming to overrun wonderfully viable neighborhoods."

Both the university and the Clayton schools say they want to gather input from residents and others in the community and have postponed a decision on the deal for a year.

In addition to the CBC property-Wydown swap, the university would get two Old Town Clayton properties - the old Maryland School and the Bracken Building - and would pay an undetermined amount of money to the Clayton district.

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