Apartments at Liberty Center get planning commission approval

Drive-thru restaurants are next up for consideration

Butler County officials have expressed misgivings over a proposal by Liberty Center owners to swap a planned retail anchor for apartments but the county planning commission approved the plan this week.

Liberty Center owners Apollo Global Management recently filed two “major modification” applications to the the planned use development with the township, one for a 300-unit apartment building and another for two drive-thru restaurants. The application notes there have been “significant changes in how people shop and where they want to work and live” and the “consensus is clear” they want to live where they can walk to work and other services so this will “position Liberty Center to respond to the shift in demand.”

The Butler County Planning Commission voted 4 to 3 in favor of the apartments earlier this week; they did not consider the drive-thru restaurants. Bruce Jones, who is the West Chester Twp. fiscal officer and chair of the planning board, said the feeling was a plan change could be good for the mega $350 million mixed-use development.

“The thought was they are trying to make some adjustments responsive to market conditions, because what they’re doing right now isn’t working,” Jones said. “They can’t continue their downward trend they’ve got to make some changes.”

Jones said the apartments will look “comparable” the other multi-family buildings in the development. The plans call for 135 each of one-and-two-bedroom units and 30 three-bedroom apartments.

“If you want to have retail having more people there is a plus,” Jones said.

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The planning commission decision isn’t binding on anyone; the final decision will be up to the Liberty Twp. trustees because they control their own zoning. Liberty Development Director Bryan Behrmann said the township’s zoning commission will hear the application for the apartments and a drive-thru restaurant on Jan. 24.

The zoning board heard the application for a dermatology clinic, retail center and a “Shake Shack” drive-thru restaurant on an out lot close to Interstate 75, by Liberty Center developer Steiner + Associates last month, and tabled the matter. Behrmann said the board will also consider those plans on the 24th. Then it all goes to the trustees.

When asked if the trustees can deny the zone change just because it is a major departure from what was originally imagined, he said, “That could be one of the many reasons that they can cite regarding the approval or denial of the plans, but ultimately they will be comparing the proposals to the Comprehensive Land Use Plan for Liberty Township.”

Butler County Development Director David Fehr said the reason the county planning commission has to also hear certain development proposals — even though they have no power to stop them — is it’s the law and really just common courtesy.

“Zone changes in Ohio have to go to the county planning commission for review and recommendation and in a way it kind of makes sense,” Fehr said. “Something that’s in Liberty Twp. could greatly impact the township next door because you’re just right across the street. It’s nice to let the other townships be notified and we talk about things regionally so that each township’s not operating in a vacuum.”

The major development plan departures are because Liberty Center has been hit hard financially in recent years. They even asked the Butler County auditor’s office for a total property value reduction of $73 million last year.

County officials are not thrilled because apartments generate property tax but no sales or income tax and residents require more services.

“We bought into a plan, we bought into a concept, we funded the interstate, we funded the road improvements, we funded our part,” Commissioner Don Dixon told the Journal-News. “Our job is to see the county taxpayers get the best deal possible and they didn’t buy in for apartments ... they bought in for Liberty Center as commercial.”

The commissioners and Liberty Twp. trustees worked with Apollo for months, trying to work out a deal that would bolster the finances of the center during these bleak retail times. Those talks ended last November with no agreement.

Part of the negotiations included the county offering to pay the center $6.8 million over six years in lieu of Apollo seeking property value reductions. In the midst of the negotiations, Liberty Center applied for two value reductions, one of the mandated 2020 reevaluation and a second taking advantage of a new law that allows companies to seek relief based on the negative impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

Until recently, Liberty Center officials would not discuss any of these these issues, and mall General Manager John Taylor did not return calls about the plan commission decision.

“Upon takeover in 2018, the current owners inherited many challenges and are continuing to consult with the county and other local officials to stabilize the center,” Taylor said previously. “We continue to evaluate a multitude of options to make Liberty Center a relevant retail destination in a changing landscape and one that positions the center for the future.”

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