The Historic Conservation Board knew it was in for a long afternoon when Western & Southern showed up to Monday’s hearing with an army of suits to argue against a recommended zoning permit for the Anna Louise Inn.
Three-plus hours of testimony and an hour-long deliberation later, the Board approved a conditional use permit that could allow the Inn to move forward with a $13 million renovation of its historic building, but Western & Southern says it will appeal the ruling, keeping the majority of funding for the renovation frozen until an appeals court rules on it.
The hearing was the latest in a more than yearlong battle between Western & Southern and Cincinnati Union Bethel, which owns the Anna Louise Inn women’s social services agency. CityBeat previously reported the details of Western & Southern’s failure to purchase the Anna Louise Inn when it had the chance and the company’s subsequent attempts to force the Inn out of the neighborhood (“Surrounded by Skyscrapers,” issue of Aug. 15).
More than 70 people attended the hearing, which was often contentious as several cross-examinations used all of their two-minute allotment per witness. The Board on several occasions had to consult its legal expert on whether or not either side could proceed, with both side’s lawyers objecting at times.
Of the six citizens who testified on Western & Southern’s behalf, five were employees of Western & Southern and the sixth was the husband of a Western & Southern employee. More than 15 citizens testified on behalf of the Anna Louise Inn. A handful were residents of the Inn; most were neighbors.
Western & Southern attempted to paint a picture of the Anna Louise Inn’s residents contributing to crime in the area because a condition of the conditional use permit is that the building’s use will not be detrimental to public health and safety or negatively affect property values in the neighborhood.
It also asked about the size and scope of the Inn’s Off the Streets program, which helps women involved in prostitution turn their lives around. The Off the Streets program was the main reason Judge Norbert Nadel on May 4 determined that the Inn is a “special assistance shelter” rather than “transitional housing,” which froze $12.6 million in city- and state-distributed loans for the Inn’s planned renovation.
The Anna Louise Inn appealed that decision but also applied for the conditional use permit from the Conservation Board under the judge’s definition, because special assistance shelters qualify for conditional use permits under the city’s zoning code.
Last week, Western & Southern lawyer Francis Barrett sent the Conservation Board a letter arguing that the proposed uses in the Inn’s application weren’t consistent with Nadel’s decision.
But Anna Louise Inn lawyer Tim Burke at the time said the Anna Louise Inn was doing exactly what Western & Southern argued in court.
During the hearing, Barrett repeatedly asked witnesses if they had seen “unsavory characters” or crimes being committed in the neighborhood. Barrett is the brother of Western & Southern CEO John F. Barrett and the chairman of the University of Cincinnati Board of Trustees.
Mario San Marco, president of Eagle Realty, which is the real estate arm of Western & Southern, suggested that he had proof residents of the Inn had committed felonies while living there. Burke and San Marco had a particularly tense exchange when San Marco attempted to pass out a page of mug shots during Burke’s cross-examination. Burke said, “Mr. San Marco, you know as a fact now, don’t you — because you’ve investigated it — that those three people were not residents of the Anna Louise Inn at the time they were put on the most wanted list.”
“I don’t know that,” San Marco said.
Burke responded: “You have no basis for knowing that any resident of the Inn committed any crimes while they were residents of the Inn, do you?”
“Only what I’ve read in the police report,” San Marco said. “It seems that comparing, there are calls by the police for rather serious crimes.”
While the lawyers went back and forth over whether or not the Inn’s residents commit crimes, Board members tried to keep the hearing focused on their mission: to determine if the Anna Louise Inn’s proposal was in compliance with the standards required for conditional use in the district, mainly historic preservation of the building and a long-term dedication to its intended use. The Board had already received a 12-page staff recommendation to approve the permit.
Vice-Chair Judith Spraul-Schmidt read the Board’s recommendation after the hour-long deliberation, stating that granting the permit will not be detrimental to public health and safety or harmful to nearby properties in the neighborhood and that the Board found no direct evidence connecting residents of the Anna Louise Inn to criminal activity in the neighborhood.
After the meeting, Barrett said Western & Southern will likely appeal the decision.
“Probably,” Barrett said. “I think it’s defective so that would be my recommendation.”
On Tuesday Cincinnati Union Bethel President & CEO Stephen MacConnell said any further interference by Western & Southern would be unreasonable.
“Personally, we believe that enough is enough and that any further action by Western & Southern is purely obstructionist,” MacConnell said. “We basically have done everything we’ve been asked to do and we’ve received all the approvals.” ©