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Urban challenges often find veteran planner in the zone


Plan commission administrator John Widmer says the biggest change he's noticed in 30 years is that today, historical preservation is viewed as more an asset than an obstacle. It's 'an equal partner at the table with development.'

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Interim Toledo-Lucas County Plan Commissions director Calvin Lawshe calls his administrator, John W. Widmer, one of Toledo's best-kept secrets, probably for good reason.

Mr. Widmer, a 30-year veteran of the plan commissions, was one of the key players in rewriting the plan commissions' zoning codes for Toledo. The three-year process covered all of the city's zoning regulations. There isn't a building or new construction in Toledo that is not affected by Mr. Widmer's work.

Rey Boezi, chairman of the Toledo Plan Commission, said Mr. Widmer's institutional knowledge of plan commissions is almost impossible to put a value on.

Mr. Widmer, 56, was the director of the Ottawa County Regional Planning Commission in Port Clinton before moving to Toledo. He said his interest in maps and geography, a love he developed at the age of 7 after a gift from a relative, has made his time enjoyable, yet challenging on a daily basis.

"I've got a chance to do a lot of different things within the department," Mr. Widmer said.

"It was an opportunity to work with other planners and the challenge of working in an urban area as opposed to [a] suburban area."

Mr. Widmer said the biggest change he has noticed over the 30 years is how leaders now view historical preservation as an asset in the area and not a hindrance.

"[Historical preservation] has become an equal partner at the table with development," Mr. Widmer said. "Now, it's part of the accepted planning tools. Keeping older buildings is now seen as an advantage and not an obstacle. When I started 30 years ago, historical preservation, except for this office, was viewed as an obstacle."

Mr. Widmer said one of downtown Toledo's newest gems, Fifth Third Field, is one of the best examples of how historical preservation and reuse of old buildings tied into new development can create a draw and something unique.

The Luckey, Ohio, native said revamping Toledo's zoning codes was a challenge because Toledo is actually two cities - the older neighborhoods that were built mostly before World War II and former Washington and Adams townships, suburban areas annexed by Toledo in the 1960s.

The challenge became creating a code both respecting Toledo's suburban setting in the old township areas and the historical neighborhoods like the Old West End and Vistula.

Those changes Mr. Widmer led were approved by Toledo City Council in 2004.

"You never want to say that a person is so important that the operation cannot function without him," Mr. Lawshe said. "That's not the case here, but John Widmer brings to this department the history and the technical expertise of today that makes it all work.

"You can have sharp, young technical players who have no history," he said.

"You can have historians who have no ability for current technology. John brings them both to the table. I, as the director, could not function and would not want to function without John at my side."

Mr. Widmer has spent most of his time in northwest Ohio, earning his bachelor's degree in geography from Bowling Green State University and his master's in city planning from Ohio State University.

He said the loss of Toledo's middle class to the suburbs continues to challenge the city because it represents a disinvestment that dilutes Toledo's resources. He said he believes a first-class mass transit system - bus and rapid transit - could be effective in bringing people back to the city.

"We have a very suburbanizing metropolitan area because we are almost completely reliant on the automobile," Mr. Widmer said. "That so much dictates a suburban environment. Cities like density, and Toledo was once more dense. To get that back, we'll need a first-rate transit system. Then you can have a higher density."

Mr. Lawshe said Mr. Widmer has the ear of the plan commissioners and that he leans on Mr. Widmer's expertise to make good zoning decisions for the city and county.

"John is the single one most responsible for our zoning codes that prevail throughout the city and Lucas County," Mr. Lawshe said.

"It is the single most important document to take into consideration when you're talking about development of any kind. John knows it like the back of his hand. On a daily basis, he continues to teach all of us how to develop that code."

Contact Clyde Hughes at:

or 419-724-6095

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