COLUMBIA — Big ideas are circling around downtown, and they’re gaining momentum.
The idea to redevelop the southern half of the central business district got a kick start when the city of Columbia, MU and Stephens College hired Sasaki and Associates in 2006 to develop a grand vision that includes an Elm Street parkway, an MU performing arts center, a museum for the Missouri State Historical Society and a hotel and convention center. The plan, which cites blight, an overabundance of surface parking and a lack of multi-story developments as the corridor’s primary problems, encourages stakeholders to promote mixed uses, new parking garages, developments of at least three to five stories and projects that attract more people to live downtown.
North of Broadway, the city already has struck a deal with owners of the Regency Hotel to facilitate a $16 million redevelopment of that property with the construction of an adjacent city-owned parking garage. Old warehouses have been converted into art studios. The Wabash Station bus depot got new life through an overhaul and expansion. City Hall is undergoing a historic renovation and expansion, sparking new interest in the beautification of Eighth Street. And new historic designations have property owners looking toward tax incentives that will finance even more upgrades.
Perhaps most striking is the recent vote by the Columbia City Council to authorize the use of tax-increment financing to expedite redevelopment. Also known as TIF, tax-increment financing encourages redevelopment by diverting some of the extra property taxes that would be generated by new development toward public infrastructure. The council’s approval represented a significant shift; city government historically has opposed tax incentives to encourage development. The owners of The Tiger hotel have said they’ll be quick to apply for TIF designation.
In a related move, the council also has endorsed the formation of a Downtown Leadership Council that City Manager Bill Watkins has said will lay the groundwork for making downtown a “regional center” and prepare the city to apply for money through the Missouri Downtown Economic Stimulus Act.
Downtown represents a significant chunk of the First Ward, and the four candidates for the First Ward seat on the City Council have spent significant time discussing its needs. Here’s a look at where the candidates stand on the issues surrounding the district.
Clark, a neighborhood and community activist, supports a comprehensive plan for revitalizing downtown and said one crucial strategy is to get more people living in the central business district.
“The core component is the central city, and the downtown area needs to have a lot more people,” Clark said. “The downtown needs to become a residential area in addition to what it is now.”
Clark believes the Downtown Leadership Council, as approved by the council, is flawed because it includes too many of the core stakeholders.
“A private, not-for-profit group should take the leadership in developing a downtown redevelopment conceptual plan. That’s what I support.” Clark cited such projects as the effort to beautify Eighth Street, also known as the Avenue of the Columns, as an example of how a revitalized downtown would look and how MU and the city should work together.
Clark said he will not support any kind of TIF incentive for The Tiger hotel until the city creates a plan that would specifically outline downtown’s needs. He also believes in allowing “market economies” to drive downtown’s future.
“My goal is to remove the various barriers so the market economies will work well. If you got more people and more activity, then a whole bunch of people are going to start looking and see they might want to have a business down there.”
Baxter, a licensed practical nurse and former vice president of the Ridgeway Neighborhood Association, said the City Council should try to make downtown as attractive as possible. She said a conference center and hotel probably would draw more people downtown for shopping and eating.
She also supports the City Hall renovations that are underway, saying it will make it easier on residents who are dealing with the city government.
“It’s hard for people to see now because it’s a lot of money, but when it’s all done I think people will see how better off it is for the city. It will be more accessible, more efficient.”
TIFs, Baxter said, are an opportunity to attract businesses downtown. She likes the fact that the council attached strict eligibility rules for TIFs and that requests will be reviewed individually by a TIF board.
Crayton, the three-term incumbent, said she thinks tax-increment financing is a good strategy for revitalizing downtown, but she also wants to ensure TIFs are used for projects that create good jobs. She believes it’s important that downtown be an attractive destination, both for Columbia residents and for visitors.
“Downtown ought to be a vibrant place,” Crayton said.
Crayton said she’d also like to see TIFs used in areas beyond downtown.
“I’d like to see TIF money used in the neighborhoods surrounding downtown,” Crayton said. “You could use that money to revitalize neighborhoods and bring up the quality of life in those areas.”
Sturtz would like downtown become a more vibrant cultural center filled with more people. The best way to do that, he said, is to encourage people to live there. More residents would boost sales and reduce traffic and pollution, he said.
Sturtz said the Sasaki plan has its pros and cons.
“I’m a little uncomfortable with the top-down approach of the Sasaki plan. It doesn’t feel like it was an outgrowth of intense collaboration among residents and business people, but I think some of the concepts are real sound and make sense.”
Sturtz said developing housing on Elm Street and reviving Eighth Street are good ideas.
“I think the Avenue of the Columns as the central spine of the city makes a lot of sense,” he said. “Historically it has a lot of rich symbolic meaning, but the actual experience of being on Eighth Street is pretty lacking. That would be another tremendous housing and retail zone for the future.”
Sturtz said TIFs could be used to stimulate mixed-income housing and the remodeling of historic structures, such as The Tiger hotel. He also said the city needs a plan to encourage and sustain small businesses.
“It’s a good thing for all the business downtown that the ones that are in the mix are distinctive and different and offer an alternative to what can be found at the strip malls and the bigger mall.”
Missourian reporters Annie Hauser, Jenn Herseim, Sean Madden and Rachel Heaton contributed to this report.