Wheeler Mission shelter rezone request gets nod from Bloomington plan commission, now goes to city council

A request for a rezoning of Wheeler Mission’s property on Westplex Avenue off 3rd Street won an 8–1 recommendation of approval from Bloomington’s plan commission at the group’s regular monthly meeting on Monday.

Dissenting on the vote was Israel Herrera. The request now goes to the city council, which will have 90 days to either approve or reject the proposal. If the council takes no action, the outcome is automatic approval.

The rezone, from mixed-use employment (ME) to mixed-use medium scale (MM), is being requested so that Wheeler Mission can expand its programs by moving some of its shelter beds to a parcel that it acquired in May of this year.

Dana Jones, director of Wheeler Mission Ministries, told plan commissioners the expansion of program space does not mean an expansion of bed capacity. The idea is to return to the same capacity as in pre-pandemic times, which is 130 beds.

Programs for which there would be more space, if the rezone request is approved, include life skills training, financial management and job readiness.

Public commentary during the plan commission’s meeting came from surrounding business owners, who described the impact they’ve seen from the behavior of some Wheeler Mission shelter guests.

Business owners described a routine need to clean up after feces, urine-filled soda bottles, broken electrical boxes, and the like.

Kim Ellis, owner of Baugh Fine Printing, described what it’s like to drive up Westplex Avenue to get to work in the morning. “Sometimes people will stand in the road, put up their middle finger and tell me: Drive around me.”

She added, “I just want to go to work. That’s all I want to do. I just want to drive up the road and go to work. But I have to wait until they decide to move out of the road so that I can drive through.”

Ellis said she previously worked for the housing authority and she understands the need to support people. “I’m not insensitive to homelessness,” she said. Ellis added, “I understand…people need help. But I feel like we have been overrun within the last five to six months.”

Adding his perspective, as the real estate broker for Ellis, was Frank Kerker. He said the behavior of some Wheeler Mission guests had a negative impact on property values. He described how he brought a prospective buyer to visit the Baugh Fine Print property, after the financial documents had been reviewed.

“The morning he arrived, there were people laying on the sidewalk, in front of the property. And there were a number of people wandering around the street near this property,” Kerker said. The buyer “summarily decided” he didn’t want to buy the property, Kerker told plan commissioners.

Kerker said when he talks to business tenants in the area, they describe how their day starts with clean up and calls to Wheeler Mission—if there’s someone sleeping on the property. “It’s ongoing, and it’s all the time,” Kerker said. He concluded, “I know for a fact that it hurts property values.”

In light of Kerker’s comments, later during the meeting, plan commissioner Karin St. John asked senior planner Eric Greulich to explain the planning staff’s proposed finding: “The proposed rezoning and expansion of services at this facility is not expected to have any negative impacts on adjacent property values.”

Greulich responded by noting that it’s not an expansion of the number of beds that is proposed, but rather an expansion of services. Greulich also focused on the nature of the request, which is to rezone a property to mixed-use medium scale.

That same zoning district exists for some immediately surrounding properties, Greulich pointed out. So it’s not the zoning district itself that might have a negative impact on the adjacent properties, Greulich said.

For Wheeler Mission’s part, Jones noted many of the people who camp out near Wheeler Mission are not shelter guests—they might be friends of guests. Jones said it’s a small percentage of the people who are causing the difficulty. Wheeler Mission services about 900 people a year, Jones added.

Jones also said for people to be camping out is not something unique to Wheeler Mission’s location. “We have an issue with camping throughout our community,” Jones said.

Susan Sandberg, the city council’s representative to the plan commission, called for a broader conversation on the topic of homelessness. Responding to remarks from business owners near Wheeler Mission, Sandberg said the city council had heard similar complaints from downtown businesses near organizations that support those who are experiencing homelessness.

“I absolutely believe that there needs to be a more community-wide discussion about the whole issue of homelessness, and being a good neighbor, while you are taking advantage of the many services that we have in this community.” Sandberg added, “There are also some responsibilities that go with that.”

Sandberg observed that the city council has a lot on its upcoming meeting agendas. The administration’s annexation proposal and the 2022 budget will be up for consideration in the next two months.

Sandberg gave an assurance that the Wheeler Mission rezone request would get due consideration from the city council. “We will get it on the agenda,” Sandberg said.