The Missourian did a good job of reporting the decisions made at this week’s City Council meeting. A once-controversial rezoning was approved, and a new bus route was authorized, both by 6-1 votes.
From my seat in the front row, I thought I saw something more. I may be mistaken, but it seems to me that those actions and the discussion that preceded them just might have shown us an important preview of Columbia’s future.
If I’m right about that, it’s a preview that offers considerable cause for optimism and an absolute guarantee of more conflict ahead.
This is journalism, so I’ll focus first on the conflict. Craig Van Matre, attorney for the successful rezoning applicants, the ubiquitous Odle brothers, solicitously told council members he understands that “it’s never pleasant” to make decisions that fail to satisfy everyone. Of course, those outcomes are a good deal more pleasant for the winners than for the losers.
In this case, the most obvious winners are the Odles, who can now proceed to erect housing for more than 700 students on East Walnut Street. The apparent losers, residents of the nearby neighborhood, conceded defeat and spoke less in anger than in hope that city officials and other center-city dwellers might learn from what has been a contentious process.
Adam Saunders, vice president of the North Central Neighborhood Association, advocate for urban agriculture and a resident of St. Joseph Street, made a strong case for the necessity of a better planning process with more citizen involvement. He also touched on two issues that point toward our future.
Infill development, he said, is important but complicated. His association favors higher residential density in the central city, but density that is both mixed use and mixed income. (“Infill” is the term of art you often hear in discussions of “smart growth.” It signifies more intensive use of areas already developed as opposed to continued outward urbanization, or sprawl.)
The Odle project certainly qualifies as higher density, but it is aimed at a single demographic – the affluent student.
Therein lies conflict and possibility. At the moment, with two strong colleges and a steadily growing university enrollment, student housing drives the market. Maybe now that we have the precedent of major apartment projects downtown, another entrepreneur will see an opportunity to build there for young professionals and empty nesters.
Mayor Bob McDavid reflected on reality in his pre-vote comments when he foresaw a future with 3,000 students living downtown. The university’s 35,000 students have to live somewhere. For the mayor – and for the rest of us – the question is whether we want them close in or out on the urban fringe.
That question gets to the implications of the other important decision council members made Monday. They approved the cleverly named “FastCAT,” the new bus route intended to serve downtown dwellers and the MU campus.
As Mayor McDavid put it, FastCAT is, or can be, a first installment of what would be a revolutionary change for us, from a “commuter culture” to a “transit culture.” Those are cultures in conflict, for sure. The first is our tradition; the second is, or may be, our future.
The transition between cultures, if it occurs, will require more than a single new route serving a single category of customer. John Clark, whose frequent suggestions to policy makers aren’t always taken as seriously as they might be, this time urged that the transit planners think big, with year-round service and long hours of operation to attract campus workers as well as students.
First Ward Councilman Fred Schmidt has taken a good deal of heat from disgruntled constituents. He explained the choices being made by him and his colleagues as well as anybody has. The Missourian quoted him this way:
“We need to realize that the city of the future is one where the downtown and central areas will need to grow up and not out, unless we want unchecked urban sprawl.”
He also described the process of change with a simile I haven’t heard before. “It’s like the Arab Spring,” he said. By that, he meant that it has been chaotic, with an uncertain outcome.
The outcome of the Columbia Summer is also uncertain. If it leads to better planning, smarter growth and more useful public transit, we’ll all be the winners.
Change of some sort is inevitable. Engaged citizens and our elected leaders can only try to shape it. As Councilman Michael Trapp said Monday, “We don’t have the option of encasing Columbia in amber and keeping it like it is.”