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First Ward candidates discuss North-Central overlay district

Sunday, March 23, 2008 | 5:17 p.m. CDT; updated 5:58 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

One of the hottest First Ward issues coming to the City Council is a proposal to establish an urban conservation overlay district for the North-Central Columbia neighborhood.

The overlay district, which has been in the works for years, would create a set of development and residential guidelines intended to conserve and enhance the historical and architectural character of the area bordered by College Avenue on the east, Ash and Walnut streets on the south, Providence Road on the west and Business Loop 70 on the north. The district guidelines, which span 68 pages and were originally drafted by a group of neighborhood residents, would go above and beyond those laid out by standard zoning regulations.

The draft guidelines divide the 320-acre area into five distinct areas, each with its own design standards. Requirements touch upon a variety of aspects, including porch and entry design, fence heights, landscaping and sign restrictions. One of the most controversial aspects of the plan is the proposed creation of a board that would review designs for new projects or redevelopments in the area.

Public hearings held by the Planning and Zoning Commission last fall drew hours of comments from dozens of citizens, many of whom protested provisions in the proposal. Since then, the commission has held a series of work sessions to revise the draft and recently submitted its revisions to Planning and Development Director Tim Teddy.

“(The Planning and Zoning Commission) has gone through the draft page by page twice,” Teddy said.

After Teddy’s review, copies of the new draft will be made available to city staff, the North-Central Columbia Neighborhood Association and other interested parties, whose comments will be encouraged. Teddy said the commission has tentatively scheduled another public hearing for May 8.

The four candidates for First Ward City Council are divided on the merits of the overlay district: Two support it and two do not. Here are their thoughts:

Paul Sturtz

Sturtz, co-founder of Ragtag Cinemacafe and the True/False Film Festival, supports the overlay district, saying neighborhood planning for the future is admirable.

“I think any time a neighborhood sets some design standards and expectations, that’s a good thing,” he said.

Sturtz cited the revitalization that occurred in northeast Portland, Ore., where he lived in the early 1990s, as an example for how overlay districts work. He said northeast Portland transformed from a poorer area with many abandoned houses into a vital and vibrant part of the city. Design standards similar to those prescribed in the North-Central Columbia overlay district were enacted to guide the revitalization and rehabilitation of northeast Portland.

Sturtz also said the overlay district is less strict than some have made it out to be.

“My impression is that no one is going to say you need to make a house look exactly like this,” he said. “It says, ‘Here are some standards that we think would make your house or your office building or your retail outlet fit the neighborhood better.’ That’s positive.”

Sturtz added that thoughtful development is key to building a functional city.

“We need to set a high standard for what kind of development goes on in the city,” he said. “And set that standard at a place where 30 years from now we look back and say, ‘That was really smart. We now have a city that is functional rather than one that needs to be razed and rebuilt from scratch.’”

John Clark

Since he was a primary architect of the document, Clark, a longtime neighborhood and community activist, naturally supports the overlay district. “I wrote the application and designed and invited almost all of the planning sessions — all with feedback from other people,” Clark said. Clark said that a lack of planning is hurting Columbia and that city government must plan more effectively if it’s going to be able to support Columbia’s rapid population growth.

“(The overlay) is a planning process; that’s why it’s important,” he said. “It’s a planning process coming out of a neighborhood.”

Clark said the overlay plan is an attempt to give the neighborhood a say in its own future.

“Our proposal supports a design review board to provide informed recommendations for downtown development,” Clark said. “If our proposal is totally killed and I’m on the council, I will come back and propose exactly the same thing, but not as part of a zoning district.”

Karen Baxter

Baxter, a licensed practical nurse and former vice president of the Ridgeway Neighborhood Association, opposes the overlay on a number of levels.

“First, the city has in place many ordinances dealing with the kind of restrictions and rules that we need to have to keep our neighborhoods up to code,” she said. “Protective Inspections is overwhelmed and understaffed with the number of issues that they have to deal with on a regular basis.”

Baxter has walked the North-Central area with the city’s Neighborhood Response Team looking for violations of city codes. She said the team, which includes representatives of the Planning and Development, Police and Public Works departments, does a good job with the staff it has.

“I see no profit in adding another layer of restrictions on top of the codes that we already have,” Baxter said. “I don’t think that that would be beneficial, and I don’t think that the city would be able to keep up with the amount of code violations that would be brought to their attention.”

Baxter also worries about the cost to homeowners and businesses.

“I know from living here in my house how expensive it is to keep this house up,” Baxter said. “If you add layers of restriction to places, it causes them a real hardship to be able to keep up the properties. We’re trying to encourage people to stay in the central city. We want them to buy houses and fix them up. We don’t want to restrict how they can do that.”

Baxter said business owners in the North-Central area might feel as if they’re being forced out.

“They’re basically saying that if we could get rid of you, we would. We aren’t going to let another business like you come into our neighborhood, and yet all those businesses were there when they chose to buy their homes and live in that neighborhood,” she said.

Almeta Crayton

Crayton, the three-term incumbent, opposes the overlay district. She said she has received a lot of negative feedback from residents.

“I don’t support that because the elderly and other people already experiencing hardships would be the people having a hard time with this district,” Crayton said.

Crayton also said that before the city adds any more housing regulations in the First Ward, it first should address issues surrounding high-density housing and real estate values in the central city.

“When they tack on all those new rules, they need to bring (high-density houses) up to code,” she said. “They did a lot of patching but no building. The prices can’t catch up with the price of the lot, which is why there are so many empties.”

Missourian reporters Anne Hauser, Rachel Heaton, Jenn Herseim and Sean Madden contributed to this report.


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