COLUMBIA —Jim Muench used to have a life.
That was before the Shepard Boulevard Neighborhood Association, which he chairs, took on the proposed Crosscreek Center development and its developer, Stadium 63 Properties. The dispute peaked on March 3 during an hours-long meeting of the Columbia City Council in which Stadium 63’s plan was rejected, largely in response to public outcry against a proposed car dealership.
The disagreement prompted Stadium 63 to hire a mediator to help the Shepard Boulevard and Timberhill Road neighborhood associations, both of which opposed the development, communicate their complaints to the developer. On May 22, the groups entered into formal talks with Stadium 63.
Although developers and affected residents often negotiate the character of new development proposals, it is less common for mediators to become involved. And for a neighborhood organization that usually deals with issues such as whether median grass is being cut in the neighborhood, negotiating architectural designs and zoning regulations poses a new challenge.
“This is precedent setting,” Muench said. “I had no idea I was getting into this.”
The parties involved signed a confidentiality agreement that prohibited them from talking publicly about the mediated discussions. But Muench confirmed the process helped foster “congenial conversation.”
On June 17, after weeks of meetings — some as long as four hours — the Timberhill association and Stadium 63 reached an agreement, ratified by a 7-to-3 vote at Timberhill’s annual meeting.
But Shepard Boulevard did not sign the agreement because the nearly 400-household association (in contrast to Timberhill’s 14), has had no opportunity to vote, Muench said. They’ll meet July 8 to discuss the agreement.
“When you do these things, you really can’t rush them,” Muench said. “We are a big organization. We have to get the notice out by putting flyers on people’s doors, so it takes time to get us moving.”
A Toyota dealership proposed for one of the Crosscreek lots remains the main bone of contention. The mediation agreement, which specifies architectural guidelines to give Crosscreek’s appearance some visual unity, excludes the Toyota dealership.
“We are uncomfortable with the car lot at that location,” Muench said. “Could we live with one under certain restrictions? Yes. But their prototype looks like something from outer space.”
Toyota has a standard design for its dealerships, and company spokesman Joe Tetherow said this is the first time he can remember a community opposing the appearance of a dealership.
“I doubt we would compromise our architectural standards,” he said. “We have an exemption from the developer, so we plan to move forward.”
Both Gregg Suhler, former president of the Timberhill Road association, and Muench spoke at Thursday’s meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission, when a Taco Bell and a Break Time proposed for two small Crosscreek lots were on the agenda. Stadium 63 decided to submit site proposals piecemeal after the City Council’s blanket rejection of the development plans on March 3.
Urging the commission’s approval of these two lots, Stadium 63 lawyer Bruce Beckett summarized the terms of the mediation agreement with Timberhill Road residents, rattling off the sign-height restrictions and the “unified theme” of brick-and-stone buildings, which would complement the surrounding businesses.
Suhler also spoke in favor of approval, praising the “evidence of quality” he had seen in the development, such as cast-iron light poles.
Muench, however, spoke against plans for the two sites, once again citing the Toyota building’s “space age” design and emphasizing Shepard Hill’s wish that Crosscreek be “aesthetically unified.” He doesn’t want the area to look like Clark Lane, which “in 30 years will look like the business loop,” Muench said.
Unity, or lack thereof, was an overarching theme of the commission’s debate. Some members focused on the stated purpose of the meeting — to consider the Taco Bell and the Break Time — while others were swayed by peripheral realities such as the midday announcement of the mediation agreement and how it related to the piecemeal manner in which the project now is being submitted.
“I’m easily confused,” Commission Chairman Jeff Barrow said at one point. “Really what we’re supposed to vote on tonight is these two lots.”
But much discussion revolved around the mediation and whether it was prudent for the commission to approve two sites before it read the agreement, or before Shepard Hill residents had voted on it.
Commissioner Helen Anthony observed that commissioners typically read documents thoroughly and that this should be no exception.
The fragmentary submission of the project also factored into discussion. Commissioner Glenn Rice thought approving the Taco Bell and Break Time would be a “foot-in-the-door” way of doing things for the developers. Eventually the commission voted 6-3 to table the two lots and consider them on July 10 with the remaining Crosscreek lot proposals.
John States, a partner in Stadium 63, said after the meeting that the commissioners should have voted on the applications in front of them, not on the basis of a forthcoming mediation agreement.
The range of issues discussed at the meeting — trees, building aesthetics, lingering rezoning issues, piecemeal proposals and the last-minute mediation agreement — suggests the need for a more streamlined development process, Barrow said.
“This is a loud siren to the city to come up with some sort of process so we’re not doing it like this anymore,” he said.
Although the Shepard Boulevard association must still vote on the agreement, Muench thinks the overall mediation process was an improvement over previously contentious discussions.
“It’s been a very tough process,” Muench said. “But I hope it can help show developers how to work with neighbors.”