Monday, Apr 24, 2017
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Op-Ed Columns

SATURDAY ESSAY

Sisters of Notre Dame missed opportunity

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” ― Jane Jacobs

I have read numerous letters written by the Sisters of Notre Dame, pertaining to their reasons why Toledo City Council should support the sale of their property at Secor and Monroe to the Kroger Co., despite two rejections of Kroger’s plan by the Toledo Plan Commission.

These letters, and many others I have read that support the Kroger proposal, are filled with misperceptions about how zoning requests are to be measured.

I have served in the past as chairman of a zoning board and as a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, and I have practiced architecture and urban planning for 43 years. 

My firm garnered 150 design awards for projects, including Detroit’s Fox Theater, the Henry Ford Estate Fair Lane, the Theater Palaye Royale, Fulton Theater, and modernist expressions such as the Delphi World Headquarters and the Detroit Receiving Hospital. 

I ended my career with a special project with some of the most dynamic and thoughtful women I have ever met — the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters in Monroe.

As the Sisters of Notre Dame may well know, the IHM Sisters were at a financial crossroads as well in 1990, and terribly worried about what would become of them and their legacy largely because their 376,000-square-foot motherhouse built in 1932 and unused like-sized academy no longer “met their changing needs” and declining membership.

Faced with the option of building a completely new structure, the sisters instead chose to renovate their motherhouse, reusing the site and shell but replacing much of the interior. By sustainably renovating the motherhouse, the IHM community emphasized their strong belief in responsible stewardship and educated the construction industry and the general public about the principles of green living and land-use planning.

The IHM Sisters had numerous offers to sell for millions of dollars, but turned instead to their mission of sustaining the planet and educating — themselves, the community, and the world — because that’s just what they do. 

They didn’t retreat inward, but rather reached outward, drawing from the best and brightest. They held community workshops for guidance, asked, learned, and forged forward in faith with the light that was cast upon their path.

The IHM Sisters have been prayerful educators, leaders, visionaries, and thought-provokers since 1845, and when faced with almost certain long-term financial peril, due largely to their building, they turned to their building, its history, and its legacy for inspiration and guidance for a path to higher ground.

It is heartbreaking that the Sisters of Notre Dame have missed their similar opportunity.

Finally, I would like to address the myriad of misconceptions related to the subject of zoning laws, which the Sisters of Notre Dame have unknowingly propagated. 

The origins of zoning districts can be traced back to antiquity and are practiced worldwide, beginning in the United States in 1916. 

Urban land-use planning maintains order, and through that order it strengthens communities through trust in their leaders. It is based on learned academic land-use planning principles. It is made into laws to be applied equally and has nothing whatsoever to do with progress, or needing the money.

It is about, particularly in this case, halting the horror of our unabated and misguided greed and consumerism. It is about, in all cases, taking the high road through educating and setting an example as the IHM Sisters did in Monroe.

Toledo’s 20/​20 Plan was established 17 years ago, with many milestone opportunities to modify since.

The Sisters of Notre Dame have seen their hardship coming for years and have had every opportunity to modify their land-use designation and educate this community, not divide it.

Their partner now holds the trump card, a power play unbecoming of the Sisters’ great legacy. I remain heartbroken over the lost opportunities — to educate and bring this community together.

Thomas Stokes is a Toledo architect.

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