Keys to the City event fosters discussion on underused property

Tuesday, October 27, 2009 | 10:21 p.m. CDT; updated 11:11 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 27, 2009

COLUMBIA — Columbia could find better uses for vacant and underused spaces in the city, according to participants at a community forum.

The city hosted its third "Keys to the City" event Tuesday night at Stephens Lake Park. The event included informal office hours with City Council members, informational booths from various city departments and a discussion on development on underused land in Columbia.

Event organizers said they intend the "neighborhood congress" discussion to be a dialogue between neighborhood association members and city planning officials.

Planning and Development Director Tim Teddy led the discussion with Tuesday night's congress. Teddy stressed that the congress doesn't set policy. "The congress is not a member organization or a lawmaking body," he said. "It's a gathering,"

The discussion, titled "Growing Up, Not Out: A Dialogue on ‘Infill’ Development,” focused on how Columbia can better use vacant and underused land within the city and how to encourage smart growth in areas that are already developed.

Participants in the discussion spoke about a wide range of issues, including uses for such underused properties, maintenance and redevelopment of buildings downtown, and the preservation of historic properties and neighborhoods.

Teddy said there is a lot of land within the city that is not used to its potential.

"There are several thousand acres of land within the city that are classified as 'vacant,'" he said.

Bonnie Bourne, the East Campus Neighborhood Association president, said she favored targeting areas in the city for development, but officials should keep the best interests of neighborhoods in mind.

"Infill as a concept could help make our city more liveable," she said. "But I think there could be good infill and bad infill depending on how we handle it."

Bourne said later that she thought the event fostered positive discussion. "I think it's a very good process," she said. "We have some very smart people in the city with a variety of experiences."

Before the congress portion, council members held informal office hours, and representatives of various city departments staffed booths about various city programs.

Andrea Shelton is a volunteer program coordinator with the public works department. She said the event was a good way for people to learn about various city programs, but she was disappointed with the turnout.

"I mean, to have a one-on-one audience with the city manager and the mayor — I think a lot of citizens would get a lot out of attending," she said.

Development Services Manager Pat Zenner said Columbia is unique in that it makes an effort to foster dialogue with the public on matters of city planning.

"It's more involved than where I came from," said Zenner, who moved from Myrtle Beach, S.C., about a year ago. "We have set ourselves on a course as a city to proactively set our future."

Geni Alexander, public information specialist for the health department, staffed a table stacked with public health information, H1N1 brochures and a bowl of apples. She had worked a "Keys to the City" event last fall and said she thought the event was a good way to get information out.

"I think it's a great way to talk to citizens," she said. "I'm ready to hand out some apples."

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