COLUMBIA — Sunset Lane is a quiet, sloping street lined with modest, well-maintained houses. It’s the first street south of Broadway, running from West Boulevard a couple of blocks west to a dead end. Near its foot, you can make a right onto Hillside, which connects to Broadway.
That’s the route I followed last Sunday. Like many of you, I’ve driven West Boulevard and Broadway hundreds of times. This time I walked, in hopes of getting a better sense of the stakes in the zoning fight that, as it turned out, the Sunset Lane residents won Monday night.
That conflict, which has been going on for two years now and surely isn’t over, pits a pair of property owners who want to maximize their return against their neighbors, who want to preserve their peace and quiet. Its eventual outcome should interest us all.
If you listened closely at the Columbia City Council meeting Monday, you could hear echoes of the eternal tension between property rights and the right to be left alone. You could also hear cryptic references to the issue we’ll confront more often if we’re serious about limiting the sprawl of our growing village.
That’s what planners call “infill.” What it means is that either we grow endlessly outward or we fill in the heart of the city with higher density and more commerce within walking or biking distance of where we live. Almost certainly, the choices that will be required will generate more conflicts like this one. Sure, I’d like to be able to walk to the store, but do I want it next door?
Just a month ago, you may recall, the Planning and Zoning Commission approved unanimously the petition by Mark Nichols and Petra Mierzwa to rezone from residential to planned business district the .6 acre they own on the southwest corner of Broadway and West Boulevard. The property currently is occupied by the Great Hangups frame shop and three run-down houses.
The idea the P&Z commissioners liked so well was to replace all that with a single two-story building of 8,000 square feet that would hold some sort of commerce on the ground floor and apartments above, plus parking for a couple of dozen cars. No restaurant, liquor store or sex shop would be allowed. The property owners would give the city right of way for a right-turn lane off Broadway onto West Boulevard.
The current owners don’t want to do the redevelopment themselves, but they’d sign a binding letter of intent limiting whoever does it.
I’m guessing that if you don’t live on Sunset Lane, this looks like a pretty good plan. After all, that corner has been commercial since at least 1929, and the much busier D&H Drugstore sits right across Broadway on the other corner. There’s even a promise that the redevelopment would bring about improvements to sewers and storm water disposal that the residents testified are urgently needed.
On the other hand, there’s the threat of increased traffic and the uncertainty created by an unknown developer and the absence of detailed plans. The opponents Monday night were well organized, passionate and equipped with videos that had musical accompaniment. They won, at least temporarily, 5-2.
Near the end of the council discussion, Mayor Bob McDavid quoted with apparent approval P&Z Commissioner David Brodsky, who said last month, “If we don’t rezone, we’ll have a dead corner in the middle of town.”
The mayor concluded, though, that the residents know better than either he or Mr. Brodsky “what’s in their best interest,” so he voted to deny.
On a quiet walk down Sunset Lane, it’s easy to sympathize with the people who live there. But I have to wonder what’s really in the best interest of the community as a whole.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.