Editor's note: This is one of four stories on Boone County Family Resources. The other installments include a look at the history and work of the agency and how the agency has helped Max Lewis and Isaac Pasley.
COLUMBIA — Columbia's North Village neighborhood is a vestige of a time gone by. Many residents are fighting to keep it that way.
Homes in the North Village — which has become a thriving arts district in the northeastern quadrant of downtown — date back to the late 19th century and now are interspersed with modern duplexes. Nearby, the formerly brick-paved Short Street has been dismantled to make way for a new hotel and parking garage. Apartments under construction by Trittenbach Construction Co. at Walnut Street and College Avenue will bring 300 new residents, mostly students, to the neighborhood.
"Living across from parking lots isn't cozy," Nina Wilson-Keenan said. She and her husband, Patrick, bought their home at 305 St. Joseph St. in 2006. They are watching development around their home, including recent property acquisitions by Boone County Family Resources, with some trepidation.
Boone County Family Resources moved in 1999 to its headquarters at 1209 E. Walnut St. in the North Village, two years after it bought the property from Stephens College. Then it began to acquire more property in the area. In the spring and summer of 2011, it bought three more North Village tracts. It later announced it needed more parking and office space.
In all, Boone County Family Resources owns 19 properties; 12 in or near the North Village, according to records available online on the Boone County assessor's website.
When the agency demolished a home at 400 St. Joseph St. in August, neighbors started to worry.
Boone County Family Resources Executive Director Les Wagner said the agency considered using some of its North Village properties on Ash Street for parking and office space but decided against it. In an Oct. 31 news release, it said its property purchases on St. Joseph came in response to a 2008 report from the city's Affordable Housing Policy Committee, which "identified an increasing need for affordable housing for people with disabilities within walking/biking distance from employment opportunities in central Columbia."
"BCFR believes the most valuable use of these properties continues to be residential. The agency has no additional plans to purchase property or demolish property," the release said.
The agency now is looking at the city's Short Street Garage development as a potential solution to its continuing space needs.
Toward that end, Deputy City Manager Tony St. Romaine said, Boone County Family Resources has been talking with North Light LLC. St. Romaine said it hopes to establish a condominium arrangement under which the agency would have office space in a mixed-use building that North Light plans to develop on property adjacent to the garage. St. Romaine expects an agreement for the sale of that city property to North Light will be presented to the City Council later this month. Boone County Family Resources also would lease 50 spaces in the parking garage.
Wagner said in an email on Thursday that the Boone County Family Resources board preferred the Short Street option for several reasons, including cost, covered parking spaces, adequate parking for people with disabilities and meeting rooms more accessible to the public.
Neighbors said they fear that if the agency's plans on Short Street fall through, it might look back to its North Village properties to accommodate growth. They are particularly concerned because the agency says it is exempt from city zoning regulations.
The North Village is zoned as an R-3 medium-density, multiple-family dwelling district. This allows apartment complexes, boarding houses, fraternities, sororities and dormitories.
School and fire districts are exempt from such zoning restrictions. So is Boone County Family Resources, Wagner said — as long as its development serves the agency's mission. The agency cites law that makes it a political subdivision of the state.
That position is backed by Boone County attorney C.J. Dykhouse and by Wagner's colleague Jake Jacobs, executive director of the Developmental Disability Services of Jackson County.
City staff, however, is unsure whether the city has authority over how Boone County Family Resources might develop its property.
"The city Law Department does not feel the law is very clear on this subject," Assistant City Counselor Cavanaugh Noce said Thursday, adding that the agency more likely is subject to local public safety laws than to zoning codes.
Mayor Bob McDavid inquired about the law at a Dec. 5 council meeting, saying it was particularly important given the agency's talks regarding the Short Street property. On Thursday, however, McDavid said he isn't worried.
"If there were a controversy — and there isn't right now — things like that are often resolved in the courts," McDavid said. "I don't really see that happening, though. I think they're reasonable, we'll be reasonable, and we'll have the citizens who live there in mind."
The story of Boone County Family Resources is one of growth.
A year after its creation in 1976 as Boone County Group Homes, it housed eight clients in a group home called Parkade House. Within two years, the agency had two group homes and 16 clients.
In 1981, it developed a program to help people with developmental disabilities succeed at home. Soon, it opened apartments that allowed people to live semi-independently. And the agency continued to grow. In 2005, the board changed its name to Boone County Family Resources to reflect its new and broader mission.
About 40 to 55 additional Boone County residents use the agency's services every year, Wagner said.
The agency's headquarters house both offices and activity space. They've become cramped, associate director Robyn Kaufman said. Meeting rooms, training rooms and storage spaces have been converted into offices, and some employees are sharing offices, she said. The parking lot is full on any given day.
Anticipating growth, Boone County Family Resources bought a neighboring home at 1205 E. Walnut St. in February 2009. It rented out the house for a while then converted it to offices. The previous tenant moved to another agency property and is its only renter without a disability.
In 2011, Boone County Family Resources approached at least three North Village homeowners with offers to buy their properties. The owners at 302, 308 and 400 St. Joseph St. sold.
The house at 400 St. Joseph St. — by many accounts dilapidated — was demolished in August. The other homes are vacant and being evaluated for renovation, Wagner said.
John Shrum is the former owner of 308 St. Joseph St., and Ronald Edelman is the former owner of 302 St. Joseph St. Although both said they were told by the real estate agent that the agency was acquiring land for a parking lot, Wagner said that's not his agency's intent.
"We have no specific plans or timetable, but we plan to rent it to people with disabilities," Wagner said. "We really think the neighborhood should remain residential."
That's why Boone County Family Resources was "averse" to expanding its parking lot on Ash Street, across from the College and Walnut apartments under construction, Wagner added.
Carrie Gartner, executive director of the Downtown Community Improvement District and a resident of the North Village, declined to comment on Boone County Family Resources' property acquisitions because they're outside the district's boundaries.
"What I can say is that part of what we encourage is a really strong ring of neighborhoods that ring downtown," Gartner said. "We do like to see everyone else strong and healthy because those are the people walking downtown and using our services."
Gartner also mentioned that two of her board members, Jennifer Perlow and John Ott, "sat down with the folks at (Boone County Family Resources)." Perlow is owner of the Perlow-Stevens Gallery, and Ott is the developer who triggered the North Village resurgence.
"They came out feeling more assured," Gartner said.
Wilson-Keenan remains cautiously optimistic.
"It will be nice if they fix them up and do what they say they're going to do, but they don't have to do anything," Wilson-Keenan said of the properties Boone County Family Resources has purchased. "When I actually see paint going on the building or structural work being done, I might feel a little more confident."