COLUMBIA — Those hoping for big changes in Columbia development trends could easily see a perfect storm ahead: A sputtering economy and the resulting lull in development. A veteran mayor set to leave office. A sense of frustration among developers and smart growth advocates alike.
But none of the major players is predicting drastic changes after the April election, when the city will have a new mayor in place of Darwin Hindman, who has held the office for nearly 15 years. An “Obama effect” on Columbia development seems unlikely, no matter who wins the mayoral race, and the next major milestone in city planning will not be completed for another two years.
“I don’t necessarily see a lot of change,” Fifth Ward City Councilwoman Laura Nauser said. “There will be some, but I think a lot of people on the council are ideologically consistent with each other.”
Most are quick to point out that the mayor represents just one vote out of seven on the council, but they also agree the job is as much about image-building as it is about voting on ordinances. Hindman has advocated for broad expansion and heightened awareness of Columbia’s parks and trails system, and his tenure saw a focus on alternative transportation.
Local developer John Ott expects that focus to continue because the community expects it. “He has made such an impact and impression on the people in the community and the people that he has worked with that I feel confident that future mayors will follow him,” Ott said.
Other development interests want to see the emphasis change. Don Stamper, executive director of the Central Missouri Development Council, is “looking for someone who focuses more on job creation than on amenities.”
Either way, the blueprint for future growth is already being drawn. After years spent “imagining” the Columbia of 2020, city leaders now want to turn a broad vision into a specific land-use plan.
A ‘comprehensive’ way forward?
With Columbia’s population now more than 100,000 and continuing to grow, the city has struggled with how best to manage that growth. During the recent housing boom, city government was just trying to keep up with demand, Hindman said.
“Now that things have slowed down, I think we have some real opportunities to experiment with planning,” he said.
Tim Teddy, the city’s planning and development director, said requests for new development have slowed significantly this year, especially compared to the boom years of 2004 through 2006. The city is trying to get “ahead of the curve” and begin planning for the day when things pick up again, he said.
Columbia has had a land-use plan since the 1930s. The most recent version was approved in 2001 and is known as Metro 2020. The plan addressed land use, transportation and the overall appearance of the community. Metro 2020 “introduces the concept of land use compatibility to promote a mix of uses instead of focusing on the separation of uses,” according to the plan. It identified five basic uses for land in the city: residential neighborhoods, employment offices, commercial businesses, open space and the “city center,” focused on the downtown area.
The plan was intended as a guide rather than a set of binding regulations, but it was not greeted warmly by everyone. Developers have criticized city officials for following Metro 2020 when its convenient and ignoring it when it’s not.
In an effort to create a more inclusive conversation about development and other issues, the city set out on a multi-year “visioning” process. A task force attempted to sort out comments and feedback from hundreds of citizens and interests in Columbia. The process ended in 2008 with another report, “Imagine Columbia’s Future,” and another round of criticism. The vision has been called vague and general, lacking the specifics sought by some developers.
The city appointed a commission to develop a strategy for implementing the goals of the report’s 13 focus areas. The Columbia Vision Commission will submit its first progress report at the end of the year, and it is identifying ways to measure improvement. According to a draft report, these could include the proportion of redevelopment relative to new development, a reduction in the number of objections to new projects and the percentage of locally owned businesses at least staying the same.
Local real estate attorney Craig Van Matre said the biggest problem with development in Columbia is a lack of clear standards. He wants the rules to be clearer, so developers can predict costs in advance. Some developers can’t afford to go through the lengthy process of getting a building project approved, Van Matre said.
The specifics could become clearer with the next major step in city planning: a revised comprehensive plan. The City Council earlier this year directed the Planning and Zoning Commission to develop a new plan based on the visioning report. It also created a separate, 15-member task force of community members to help.
“I’ve always felt that planning has got to be something that is community-based,” Hindman said. “There is a tendency to have planning kind of come down from people who are very planning oriented and want to impose it on the community.”
The goal of the process, according to the council, is to combine and refine a patchwork of existing documents into one plan that outlines the city’s path forward. The report is scheduled to be completed by September 2011.
Missouri law specifies that master planning is the job of each city’s planning and zoning commission but, other than that, the state leaves most growth management decisions to municipal governments. Other state legislatures have become more involved in regulating growth. Washington state, for example, not only requires every city to have a comprehensive plan but also dictates what each chapter of that plan must include and lists specific statewide mandates.
Hindman and other council members said Columbia’s new comprehensive plan has the potential to make a big impact. But after years of conflict over growth management, others might see it as more bureaucracy: Another task force, another two years and another report.
In the meantime, Columbia is working with Boone County officials to plan on a smaller scale. This “sub-area planning” approach began with the Northeast Area Plan, approved by the City Council on Monday. It covers the area surrounding the site the new high school that Columbia Public Schools will build. The report, more than a year in the making, was a joint effort of the city and county planning and zoning commissions.
The same group is taking input on a similar plan for East Columbia, focusing on a 21-square mile area that eventually will be bisected by an extension of Stadium Boulevard from U.S. 63 to the Lake of the Woods interchange on Interstate 70. These area plans, like the citywide comprehensive plan, address future land use and infrastructure needs in advance of new projects.
One of seven
With the cogs already in motion, the odds of a new mayor bringing in sweeping development changes are low. Hindman said the mayor has a unique role in representing the entire city – rather than a single ward – and has a bully pulpit to set the agenda. But he doesn’t anticipate major changes after he leaves office.
Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala agreed. “I don’t think there will be any sudden change,” he said. “The change has been occurring, and Hindman has been a part of it. The City Council in general has been part of an evolution.”
Skala said he wants to see the city become more proactive, rather than reacting to plans from developers. First Ward Councilman Paul Sturtz has criticized a “developer-led strategy” and said he wants specific proposals to come after the comprehensive planning process. Stamper agreed the trend has been too reactionary.
The mayor’s role in changing that will be largely a matter of collaboration. In Columbia the mayor shares power with six other council members. At least three incumbents — Nauser, Jason Thornhill of the Second Ward and Barbara Hoppe of the Sixth Ward — will be back when the new mayor steps in. Skala is up for re-election, and Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade is running for mayor, leaving his ward seat open to a newcomer.
“Here we’re all equal,” Nauser said. “All you have to do is get a majority to move a project or policy forward.”
New voices on the council have brought changes in the past, Thornhill said. Skala and Hoppe are proponents of “smart growth,” which focuses on tying growth to existing infrastructure.
“When they arrived on the council, you started to see changes in a fair portion of the council’s mentality” toward development and sustainability, Thornhill said.
The mayor has the unique role of being the public face of the council. Hoppe said that person is an important spokesperson for the city and has the ability to set the tone of the debate but ultimately has only one vote. Nauser said the mayor’s biggest role is generating positive attention for the city, a challenge that depends largely on personality.
Among the current field of four mayoral candidates there are different views of development – and of the mayor’s impact on its future. Paul Love, a network administrator for CarFax, said there would be at least a temporary slowdown in development if he were elected. Love said he wants to take time to understand why projects are being built as they are. He also wants to make sure there are enough infrastructure and police resources to support growth.
“Honestly, I’ll admit that I’ve lived here for quite some time, and I’ve seen some subdivisions that were very well planned and some that weren’t, but I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to development at the time,” Love said. “As a mayor, you need to pay more attention to that.”
Sid Sullivan, a past candidate for Boone County commissioner and the Missouri House of Representatives, predicted a more gradual shift. “I think it will be incremental,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think there will be radical change overnight.”
Sullivan wants the city to be more concerned with the cost of infrastructure associated with new development: “For too long I think we’ve basically said ‘here’s the plan,’ and we never change the plan.”
Columbia tavern owner Sal Nuccio would prefer to see the city build up the infrastructure it already has. He said Columbia has expanded enough. Nuccio said people with more experience in development issues might be overestimating the mayor’s role.
“A lot of people don’t realize that the mayor himself is not the mastermind behind everything that goes on in the city,” he said. “No matter who is running for mayor, the same platform exists. First it’s about public safety, then intelligent growth and then the economy.”
As the filing deadline for candidates approaches, debate over Columbia’s future will intensify. The next mayor is expected to preside over important decisions affecting development across the city, particularly on the growing east side. Yet the mayor – one vote of seven – has limited ability to bring any dramatic, sudden change. Current council members have high hopes for the comprehensive planning process, now in its early stages. It has the potential to have a greater long-term impact on development than next April’s election.
“I do believe it is important who is on the council – that shows what the city is willing to implement. The future patterns are dependent on the council and the policies and regulations we put into place equally,” Wade said.
This story is part of a larger project by Vox Magazine, the Missourian, KOMU TV-8 and KBIA to cover conflict and the legal system in Columbia and Boone County.