Building would include space for regional office on aging

By Jeff Lehr

Globe Staff Writer

St. John's Regional Medical Center's request to rezone seven vacant lots the hospital owns on Bird Avenue - to clear the way for construction of office buildings - appears headed for final approval by the Joplin City Council.

St. John's wants to donate three of the lots on the east side of Bird Avenue, between Gabby Street and 28th Street, to the Area Agency on Aging for construction of new regional offices.

The request has run into some opposition from homeowners on Bird and Connor avenues who fear devaluation of their properties, higher fire insurance rates, increased traffic and other possible adverse impacts.

Robert Fitzgerald, 2702 S. Connor Ave., said there is concern in the neighborhood about the noise and dust during construction, as well as lighting and traffic problems the office buildings might create. He said the environmental impact of the proposal has not been fully considered.

Mark Tozzio, senior vice president at St. John's, said location of the Agency on Aging close to Mercy Village - the low-income senior housing complex St. John's is building at the southwest corner of Bird Avenue and 28th Street - would be ideal. The hospital hopes to see the remaining lots developed for home-health services or administrative offices.

Six of the seven lots are zoned for apartment house use. The seventh lot is zoned single-family residential. The office building use under consideration would require a change to commercial, non-retail zoning.

The City Council on Monday approved the first reading of the ordinance rezoning the properties after Tozzio told council members that residents' fears were misplaced.

"We're as interested as anybody to see that it's a nice, aesthetically pleasing building that fits into its environment," Tozzio said.

The Area Agency on Aging is open to the offer from St. John's.

Beverly Scroggins, the agency's community services director, said the agency is facing the prospect of state budget cuts and is looking for ways to trim its overhead.

The agency has offices on 32nd Street and in Northpark Mall. It leases the offices on 32nd Street and pays utilities on its space at the mall.

Scroggins said consolidating the agency's various services and programs under a single roof could save on costs in the long run.

Mayor Richard Russell, who serves as executive director of the agency, recused himself from the discussion and vote Monday. Councilwoman Vesta Grindstaff, whose husband works for the agency, also refrained from voting.

Russell said Tuesday he believes some of the residents' concerns have been answered. He said the agency is interested in constructing a single-story building with about 6,000 square feet of space. He said concerns that it could be a two-story structure are misplaced. Russell said there would be no need for parking lot lighting because the offices would be closed at night.

He and others have said the current zoning would permit construction of apartment houses that potentially could be less to the liking of nearby homeowners than office buildings are.

Russell said financing of the project remains in question.

"It would require some fund raising, of course," he said.

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