City Council approves temporary fix to street-closing ordinance

Tuesday, August 16, 2011 | 6:50 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Those who are granted permits to close streets downtown will have control over smaller areas surrounding their events under an amendment to the city's street-closing ordinance that won the approval of the Columbia City Council on Monday night.

But the amendment is just a temporary fix, and representatives of both the city and the Downtown Columbia Community Improvement District acknowledge the ordinance needs more work.

The council and members of the public discussed the amendment for more than 40 minutes at Monday's meeting. The city's street-closing ordinance has been in the spotlight since some downtown business owners complained earlier this summer about Blue Note owner Richard King's regular requests to close a section of Ninth Street for his Summerfest concert series.

King told the council he is ready to meet with anyone to discuss further revisions to the ordinance.

The council voted 6-1 Monday to reduce the buffer zone around street closings to 750 feet, down from the previous 1,000 feet. Other streets within 750 feet cannot be closed, and any outside vendors who want to do business within that area must get permission from the person holding the permit.

The amendment also stipulates that businesses within the buffer zone must be able to remain open and that customers must be able to access businesses within the blocked-off area without paying entry fees.

City Manager Mike Matthes said that 1,000 feet would be about three city blocks in all directions, while 750 feet would be about two city blocks. A 500-foot buffer zone, which was proposed by First Ward Councilman Fred Schmidt but rejected by the rest of the council, would only be about one block.

Matthes said 1,000 feet might be too big a buffer zone for Columbia.

The council asked the Downtown Columbia Community Improvement District to discuss and recommend longer-term improvements of the street-closing process.

Carrie Gartner, executive director for the community improvement district, asked the committee for 60 days to do so. Third Ward Councilman Gary Kespohl suggested the decision be made before Nov. 1.

In an Aug. 10 letter to the City Council, Gartner wrote that the district board would like to “ensure that all perspectives are heard” and “receive input from a wide range of downtown stakeholders.”

Gartner said her board was concerned that the council was considering a temporary fix.

“Why not take this opportunity to look at the larger, more comprehensive ordinance and make some major changes that really need to be made with the street ordinance?” she asked.

King disagreed.

“I do think the changes tonight are appropriate for right now,” he said.

Matthes said he and his staff believe the minor fixes will eliminate confusion. “This item is really the beginning of a set of comprehensive changes proposed to the street use permit process,” he said.

Fourteen members of the public spoke about the amendment. Many supported the Ninth Street closings that sparked the debate. Among them was Jack Tatum, who said he and his wife made the right decision when they came to Columbia.

“When we first moved to town the Twilight Festival downtown made us feel like this town had life,” Tatum said.

After moving away for professional training, Tatum and his wife moved back because they wanted their kids to be raised in a city that celebrates the arts.

Tatum believes events such as Summerfest are good for downtown because they encourage people to spend money at local establishments.

“This is a vibrant part of the community, and I hope that whatever happens from this, we’ll find a way to keep it going.”

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