Remember the Sasaki plan? That was delivered in 2007. Remember the charrette? That was just a couple of years ago. And Visioning? Now we’re “imagining” Columbia again. I haven’t even mentioned the granddaddy of all those plans, Metro 2020. That one was adopted way back in 2001.
The point is that when it comes to thinking, dreaming, even planning for the future of central Columbia, we’ve got no shortage of guidelines. Like many of you, I’m sure, I’ve been impressed, even inspired. All the plans I’ve mentioned envisioned a strong, vibrant downtown with high-end apartments and condominiums attracting young professionals and affluent retirees to patronize restaurants and retailers.
Then came the Odle brothers. You don’t need to visit a website to see their notion of what downtown should be. Just stroll up Tenth Street from the university parking garage toward Broadway. Or jog to the northeast a few blocks, to the intersection of College and Walnut.
While consultants’ dreams mainly exist on paper and in cyberspace, the Odlerian reality is hundreds of units intended to house the flood of students who’re swelling university enrollment to record heights.
If you’re the owner of a downtown bar or late-night restaurant, this no doubt strikes you as a wonderful development. From the university viewpoint, its residence halls can only hold about 6,300 students, so the rest of the rapidly growing enrollment (35,000 or so expected this fall) has to live somewhere. Where better than within walking distance, not only of the bars, but of the campus?
For the rest of us, though, the citizens who value the vision of downtown outlined by all those consultants and want to preserve the city’s core, is this eruption of apartments what we want? More to the point, is there anything we can do?
In search of one set of answers, I sat in Tuesday night on the North Central Columbia Neighborhood Association board of directors regular meeting. More than most of us, the residents of the swath of Columbia between Broadway and the Business Loop, College Avenue west to Providence Road, have their property values and their piece of mind affected by forces mainly beyond their control.
The Odle apartments loom over the modest houses that line those narrow streets just north of Walnut and west of College. Much of North Central was to be designated “blighted” in the first map made public by promoters of the much-debated Enhanced Economic Zone. Another tax abatement program, this one called a TIF, may be proposed as a way to finance infrastructure improvements by luring more businesses.
Already, under the soft-spoken but persistent leadership of Pat Fowler, the NCCNA has scored some notable victories. After negotiation between residents and developers broke down, the Planning and Zoning Commission voted to deny the rezoning requested by the Odles for an expansion of their apartment project. The City Council, under citizen pressure, rescinded the first missteps in the EEZ process. The “blight map” is being redrawn to cover a much reduced area. A new advisory board seems likely to include neighborhood representatives.
Ms. Fowler reported on her meeting this week with the city manager. Her goal, she said, was above all to make sure the association is at the table as plans shaping the neighborhoods' future are discussed. I’ll be surprised if that doesn’t happen.
She also wants to meet with the board of the recently created Community Improvement District, which represents the heavy hitters of downtown commerce and abuts North Central.
I wondered what, if anything, those neighbors have in common and how that conversation might go, so I called Carrie Gartner, executive director of the CID (and until recently a resident of North Central herself).
Ms. Gartner reminded me of the obvious — that there’s no guarantee consultants’ dreams will translate into bricks and mortar. The plans are largely “inspirational,” she pointed out. Actual development is driven less by vision than by the market.
Much of downtown commerce is “tailored to students,” she said, but when it comes to residents, the CID goal is “balance” between student apartments and rentals or condominiums appealing to their elders.
Downtown business people want strong neighborhoods in the central city, Gartner said. “We recognize the problem; we’re limited by the tools we have.”
One of those tools, as recent developments demonstrate, is the passion of the citizens. It’s a safe prediction, I think, that we’ll be hearing a lot more from the citizens of North Central. No longer overlooked, they just might become role models for the rest of us.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.