Jim Carney

Officially, it was an informal meeting at Akron City Hall to discuss a developer’s request for a special zoning permit to allow a retail/residential project on West Market Street at Highland Square.

After nearly an hour inside a conference room filled with nearly 40 people listening, talking, debating all sides of the issue, including the future of an old ash tree that has become a focal point in the debate, Akron City Council President Garry Money­penny remarked: “This is how the political process should work. I want to compliment you all.”

At issue is a conditional-use permit to allow both retail and residential use on the property on the north side of West Market Street where the Nemer family wants to construct a building that would house five apartments along with three family-owned businesses now located on the south side of West Market. There also would be a fourth retail space in the development.

On May 24, after several trees were removed from the property and where two century-old apartment buildings already had been taken down, some community residents began a protest to save a large, old ash tree on the north side of the Nemer property.

Since then, some people in favor of saving the tree have spent time in its limbs every day.

On Friday, Julie Farris spoke at the City Hall meeting in favor of saving the tree.

“We just want to save an old tree,” she said. “We didn’t know we were walking into a hornet’s nest.”

Another supporter, Michael Freibert, who called himself Treetop Mike, suggested there are ways to save the tree from the emerald ash borer that has been infecting trees across the state. He urged that it not be taken down yet.

“We can hold off a few weeks or months until the plans are finalized,” he said.

Councilman-at-large Jeff Fusco, chair of the Planning Committee, pointed out that a property owner has the right to take down a tree on that parcel.

Supporters of saving the tree have created the Facebook page Save Our Big Ash Tree. They had totaled 327 “likes” as of Friday afternoon.

At the same time, another group — in favor of the Nemer development — started a Facebook page, Akronites For the Future of Highland Square, and had gathered 305 “likes.”

“We want to voice our support for the development,” Kelly Chase said.

A dozen city officials and some neighbors of the proposed project attended Friday’s meeting.

Among them was attorney Jay Linnen, whose office building sits just east of the site. He and others expressed concerns about a parking lot that would be built behind the project and questioned how traffic from that lot would affect Casterton Avenue.

Linnen also said he feels there aren’t enough parking spaces allocated to the Nemer lot and is concerned his building’s parking lot will be used for any overflow of cars.

Mario Nemer, owner of the Mr. Zub’s Deli and the Matinee bar, said his family wants to work with neighbors to make the building right for the community.

Two old trees at the front of the property are being saved, the family said.

“Our family has been in business a long time,” Mario Nemer said.

Fusco said council members will not vote on the permit next week. They will continue to study the issue.

“We are here to hear from you and get your input to make sure it is done right,” he told meeting attendants.

At the end of the meeting, he echoed Moneypenny’s words about the civility those with opposing views had shown each other.

“This is the democratic process at its best,” Fusco said. The meeting “was done in a very special manner.”

Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or jcarney@thebeaconjournal.com.