Fifth Ward City Council candidates address downtown planning, city transportation

Friday, January 11, 2013 | 6:24 p.m. CST; updated 3:57 p.m. CST, Monday, January 28, 2013

COLUMBIA — Candidates for the Columbia City Council's Fifth Ward seat, which will be filled in a Feb. 5 special election, addressed planning and public transportation issues during a Friday luncheon held by the Columbia Pachyderm Club.

All three candidates — Susan "Tootie" Burns, Mark Jones and Laura Nauser — attended the forum. Each offered his or her thoughts on city planning.

Nauser said she advocated more detailed planning when she served as the Fifth Ward representative on the council from 2004 to 2010.

"We can't plan for the future if we don't have a written document and we don't know where we want to move forward," Nauser said. "It's key for the City Council to know what the strategic plan is so we can pick core areas of that to focus on."

Burns called downtown development and student housing "a hot button issue."

"I do agree we need to slow down on student housing downtown," Burns said, adding that she would like to see a more structured, form-based plan for downtown development.

Burns also said the council should be more proactive than reactive. She cited the ongoing debate about whether the city should grant a permit for the demolition of the historic Niedermeyer building.

"We have to preserve our historic downtown and be aware of buildings that might be susceptible to problems such as Niedermeyer," Burns said. "We also have to be respectful of the fact that there is a developer who wants to develop the property and an owner who wants to sell the property."

Jones also said the council is too reactive. "We have a council that leaps from crisis to crisis," he said.

Jones said city officials should be more aggressive about lending a helping hand to possible historic sites. He recommended pulling together all the stakeholders — developers, property owners, historic preservationists and planning and zoning experts — to piece together a plan.

"We need to ... create meaningful work groups that surround the issue with the best and brightest in Columbia," Jones said.

The candidates also addressed planning on a broader scale. Jones said the pace of enrollment growth at MU is a challenge that must be confronted.

"When your No. 1 employer (MU) is adding 1,000 people per year to the demand of services, as we continue to grow we have to focus on issues of density and whether we want a community that sprawls out or grows up," Jones said.

Burns said she would like to see five-, 10- and 15-year student number projections from Columbia College, Stephens College and MU to help the city plan for growth.

"The university is not building to accommodate student housing on their own," she said.

Nauser said she is a strong proponent of infill development. "It makes more sense to build up where you already have the infrastructure."

Bill Wolff, who moderated the forum, asked for the candidates' thoughts on public transportation.

Burns focused on getting students to use the FastCAT bus service around downtown Columbia. She said if the city offered off-site parking for students and enticed them to use FastCAT, it would help improve downtown's traffic issues. Nauser agreed.

Jones said he believes the lack of interest in public transportation is a customerservice issue, not something promotions can solve.

"I don't mean the bus driver or the color of the buses," he said. "I believe that relates back to that the FastCAT system isn't the most customer service friendly: times, place and rotations. We need to work on that much more."

"At the end of the day, we need to develop a model of FastCAT that actually meets the public transit need here, which is something that runs at somewhat unusual hours, runs more often so students can be predictably on time," Jones said. 

Jones also said that Columbia has a sizable population of non-students who require bus service early in the morning and after business hours to get to and from work and to run errands.

Nauser said she would support the community's desire for public transportation. She worried, though, that federal and state funding for public transportation will dwindle. That, she said, means the city will have to figure out how to pay for it independently.

"I don't believe it will ever be one of those things that is entirely self-sufficient because we can't charge the fares that are going to be adequate to support it," Nauser said.

The special election will fill the seat left vacant by the resignation of former councilwoman Helen Anthony.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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