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Leadership Council addresses downtown development

Wednesday, July 29, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 6:04 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 29, 2009

COLUMBIA – It’s been a dizzying several years downtown.

IRONS IN THE FIRE

Several planning and development initiatives are under way downtown. Here's a quick-hit look at some of them.

SASAKI PLAN

Sasaki Associates in 1996 presented a proposal for revitalizing the southern half of downtown, between MU and Broadway. Among its recommendations were strengthening partnerships among Columbia, MU and Stephens College, revising zoning ordinances to encourage mixed-use development and establishing a downtown capital improvement program. Sasaki identified seven "catalytic projects" to beautify and spur investment in downtown.

    * Renovation and expansion of the Missouri Theater

    * A new MU performing arts center at Hitt Street and University Avenue

    * A new Missouri Historical Society Building on Elm Street facing Peace Park

    * A hotel-conference center on the Avenue of the Columns

    * A "civic square" on the Avenue of the Columns, with public fountains or green space

    * Extension of Elm Street to College Avenue and conversion of the street to a landscaped parkway

    * Increased city and MU parking garage capacity

The study also identified a number of underused properties, including surface parking lots, and recommended they be upgraded to mixed-use, multi-story developments. To learn more about the Sasaki Plan, go to gocolumbiamo.com/campus-cityopportunitystudy.php.

COMMUNITY IMPROVEMENT DISTRICT

Worried that its cash stream could not keep up with the city’s growth, the Columbia Special Business District began looking into restructuring its funding. In spring 2008, the district board hired Progressive Urban Management Associates to assess its and the Central Columbia Association’s organizational structure. One of PUMA’s recommendations was to create a community improvement district, or CID.

A CID is a political body that can raise money using a number of mechanisms, including service charges, special assessments, membership fees, property taxes and sales taxes. The CID would help pay for landscaping, capital projects, maintenance and other services within the Special Business District, most likely through an extra half-cent tax on sales within its boundaries.

The Special Business District board is drafting a petition to form a CID. It must be signed by more than half the total number of property owners within the proposed boundaries and represent more than half of the area's assessed valuation. To learn more about the downtown CID plan, go to http://downtown.org/cid.html.

TAX-INCREMENT FINANCING

The city Council recently approved two applications for tax increment financing, which allows developers to funnel into their projects some of the increased property taxes that result from property improvements into their projects. TIF also allows up to 50 percent of sales tax revenue to help defray the costs of the development. The council has approved TIF for an $8.9 million renovation of The Tiger Hotel and a $17.1 million mixed-use development at Tenth and Locust streets that Trittenbach Development says will include 58 apartments, a grocery store and office space.


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About four years ago, the city, MU and Stephens College formed a partnership to begin taking steps toward a revitalization of the southern half of the central business district. Together, they hired Sasaki Associates to develop a comprehensive strategy for eliminating blight and making better use of surface parking and other “under-utilized” properties. Sasaki presented its recommendations in December 2007, calling for mixed-use developments and encouraging several “catalytic” projects, including a hotel and conference center, a new MU performing arts center, a new museum for the State Historical Society of Missouri and an extension of Elm Street to College Avenue.

Meanwhile, the Special Business District Board of Directors is moving toward the creation of a community improvement district that would reorganize downtown government and levy extra sales tax to pay for maintenance and beautification projects.

Now, the Downtown Leadership Council has stepped into the mix by issuing a preliminary set of findings and suggestions all on its own. The report, released in April, recommends expanding the scope of central-city planning to include the entire area bordered by Stewart Road and University Avenue to the south, Old 63 to the east, Business Loop 70 to the north and Garth Avenue to the west. It also recommends convening an urban design "charrette" to get community-wide input on how the city should move forward with downtown initiatives.

 “The purpose is to bring in a consultant to lead the community through particular areas of the expanded downtown,” said Tim Teddy, director of Planning and Development for the city. “And to generate ideas about how things can develop.”

Teddy said the “general consensus is that the charrette is a good thing.” He emphasized the importance of community involvement in this planning process.

The first step of the charrette is preparation, during which a consulting firm would be selected to review the city, look at planning programs and start early goal-setting through facilitated public forums to discover what the community would like to see downtown.

After these initial forums, the consultant will work on drawings and renderings based on suggestions from the forums. The consultant will then propose which ideas it believes the city needs to implement, and the public will be invited again to give feedback.

“(The charrette) is a catalyst to do some additional quality development downtown,” Teddy said. “A way to get the public to buy into the DLC’s idea that Columbia could do well with expanding and developing downtown.”

Teddy said that while the series of public forums shouldn’t last more than a week, the whole process could last about half a year.

All this planning — and planning for more planning — is taking place even as some projects are already under way or soon will be. Those include the renovation and expansion of city hall, the construction of a $15 million parking garage and the pending redevelopment of The Tiger Hotel and property at Tenth and Locust streets, projects that just last week became the first to be approved for tax-increment financing.

It is a confusing state of affairs that might cause one to ask just who’s in charge. But attacking the needs of downtown on multiple fronts is exactly what yet another document, the Imagine Columbia’s Future visioning report approved by the City Council in February 2008, says the city must do.

Mary Wilkerson, chairwoman of the Special Business District board and a member of the Leadership Council, said it will be a challenge to weave together all the different projects and initiatives to create a cohesive concept for the central business district.

“It's contingent on people involved in the projects to reach out and say what you are doing," Wilkerson said. "I've had the opportunity to facilitate the sharing of information. That's something I love about Columbia, everyone wants to sit down and talk things through. People are willing to compromise (to achieve) a vibrant, fantastic downtown."

The Leadership Council is the latest to weigh in. The introduction to its report outlines the challenges ahead.

“‘Downtown’ is an idea in one’s mind as well as an actual location. For decades downtown was the center of community activity, both social and commercial,'” the introduction states. “Yet, today, most downtowns are no longer the only, or even the primary, business district in their communities. They are competing with newer commercial developments."

“To keep up with the commercial strip and suburban malls, owners covered older downtown buildings with aluminum and installed plate-glass windows and oversized signs to attract customers. Believing that such ‘modernizing’ efforts would make them competitive with newer commercial strips, property owners often destroyed the character of their buildings and their downtowns.”

The key to regaining economic vitality in the central business district, the report says, is to develop a sense of place by preserving historic buildings and taking advantage of downtown’s unique features. But the report recognizes that there is “no magic list of projects” for revitalizing downtown.

DIFFICULT HOMEWORK

The council created the Leadership Council in March 2008 and gave it five major assignments:

1. Develop proposed boundaries of an expanded downtown study area.

2. Assess assets and opportunities within that area.

3. Advise city staff and consultants on preparation of a blight/conservation study and an application for assistance through the Missouri Downtown Economic Stimulus Act.

4. Develop strategic and conceptual plans for the area, similar to the plan developed by Sasaki.

5. Recommend possible development guidelines and physical attributes for downtown.

The downtown council accomplished most of these tasks, but it waved the white flag on No. 4. Developing a concept for redevelopment of the central city was simply "beyond the resources of the Downtown Leadership Council," the report said. It urged the city to hire a consultant to lead the urban design charrette that would enlist the entire community in developing a comprehensive strategy.

"Urban design is the words and pictures," said Columbia architect Nick Peckham, who chaired the Leadership Council in its first year. "City planning is the rules and regulations."

During his 34 years in Columbia, Peckham said the public has shown a desire to be involved in downtown planning, as demonstrated during the visioning process. He said City Manager Bill Watkins has included money for an urban design consultant in the proposed budget he’s developing for fiscal 2010. Watkins is scheduled to unveil that budget on Thursday.

"Whoever is selected will have to have experience and be able to point out various options instead of a more single issue basis," Peckham said.

The leadership council’s report is organized as responses to the tasks it was assigned. The first was to propose new boundaries for the study area. Its borders nearly double the size of “downtown” as defined by the Metro 2020 plan of the early 1990s.

Wilkerson said that she would call the expanded boundaries a "core city" rather than "downtown."

"We needed to take a much bigger picture to convey ... the inter-connectiveness of the area around downtown," she said.

OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES

The second task was to do an inventory of assets and opportunities within the new area. To accomplish that, the leadership council divided the zone into four quadrants centered around Broadway and Eighth Street. Members divided into teams to study each quadrant.

The northwest quadrant team found that its area includes many historic African-American buildings, including Second Missionary Baptist Church, the J.W. "Blind" Boone Home, St. Paul AME Church, Fifth Street Christian Church and Frederick Douglass High School, all of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The quadrant also includes the historic “Sharp End” district, which was home to several black-owned businesses before the urban renewal efforts of the 1960s. Challenges here include getting property owners on board with potential changes, but the large amount of surface parking presents opportunities for redevelopment once the city’s new $15 million parking garage is finished.

The team that studied the northeast quadrant found that redevelopment centered around arts and entertainment, such as the Orr Street Studios, is thriving there. But it still suffers from under-utilized, non-residential buildings and the Leadership Council said it will be difficult to balance the goals of redevelopment with the interests of residents.

The southeast quadrant is where much of the recent action has taken place, including the renovation of the Missouri Theatre. And the Sasaki plan shows high hopes for the area, including a new MU performing arts center and the extension of Elm Street. Team members worry, however, that the Elm Street project might eliminate affordable housing and demolish historic properties.

Although the southwest quadrant was found to have several assets, including the Islamic Center of Central Missouri, the YouZeum and Flat Branch Park, team members see a lot of potential there. The Sasaki plan calls for further development of the Flat Branch area as a “garden district” of mixed-use buildings, and Eighth Street, the report said, could become a “high spine” of hotels and conference facilities, including the renovated Tiger Hotel.

GIVING REDEVELOPMENT A BOOST

The Leadership Council was asked to provide advice on how to prepare an application for assistance through the Missouri Downtown and Rural Economic Stimulus Act, which is similar to a tax-increment financing district. MODESA criteria, however, can be difficult to meet, the report said, because it requires the creation of many new jobs and the elimination of blight or conservation of significant properties. To date, only Springfield and Kansas City have successfully used the program.

The report outlines several other strategies the city might want to consider for downtown, including local tax-increment financing – which has since been approved for The Tiger Hotel and the Trittenbach Development project at Tenth and Locust streets – a neighborhood or community improvement district, a transportation development district or state-level tax increment financing.

The Special Business District board voted at its June 9 meeting to move forward with a community improvement district and is working on a petition that will be circulated among downtown business owners. A CID would replace both the Special Business District and the Columbia Community Association and have the ability to levy a special sales tax to pay for downtown beautification and maintenance projects.

Along with financial incentives, the leadership council cited form-based zoning as a key tool for ensuring downtown redevelops in a desirable way. Form-based zoning emphasizes coherent and consistent appearances in urban settings, something conventional zoning doesn’t address. The group also offered preliminary development guidelines that list both appropriate and inappropriate building materials but said that they would have to be customized for individual projects and that public input is important. A Design Guidelines Committee continues to work on that task.

The report concludes by restating the key recommendation that the city hire a professional consultant. Looking forward to the next round of planning – the urban design charrette – Peckham said the focus should be on how to improve both the quality of life for citizens and the quality of the environment.

“There are a lot of people who care for Columbia in different ways,” Peckham said. “Columbia is a big city in the eyes of towns within 50 or 60 miles; it's a major shopping, education and employment center. In general, the goal of the DLC is to help the city articulate what the future looks like downtown.

“The making of a city takes so much time,” Peckham said. “It takes a tremendous number of things … for the future to be better. I’d like to see the city be as good as it can be.”


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