Most of the crowd left Tuesday’s City Council meeting once the council had defeated on a tie vote Barbara Hoppe’s attempt to impose a 6-month moratorium on downtown demolitions.
The discussion, first by nearly two dozen citizens and then among council members, had been passionate, even heated. It was well-informed and, I thought, perfectly illustrative of the ongoing debate about Columbia’s future.
Left unanswered were the biggest, most important questions we face. How do we want our city to grow – up or out? What’s the proper balance between preservation and development? Who gets to decide?
The protagonists on the council were the Sixth Ward’s Ms. Hoppe and Mayor Bob McDavid. I thought both were eloquent and persuasive. Each won the support of two colleagues.
Ms. Hoppe’s argument was that the city has, over the past five years, spent more than $200,000 on visioning, the Sasaki plan for downtown and the Charrette that proposed a comprehensive set of objectives for strengthening the city core. A request for proposals from consultants who would rework the zoning code is now being drafted. It would be wise, she said, to halt downtown development long enough to revisit the rules that govern it.
“It’s not just about what comes down; it’s about what goes up,” she said. Recognizing that downtown development is outpacing efforts to regulate it, she added a bit defensively, “We haven’t been sitting on our hands, but we haven’t acted fast enough.”
In fact, although the council has formally adopted the charrette recommendations, nothing visible has been done to implement any of them. (To read them for yourself, go to the city’s website, gocolumbiamo.com, and search for “H3 Charrette.”)
Mayor McDavid focused on the issue that has triggered this civic spasm: the proposed demolition of the old Niedermeyer building and its replacement by a high-rise devoted to student apartments.
“We all want the Niedermeyer to stay, but I don’t own the Niedermeyer,” he said, adding that neither he nor the city has the wherewithal to buy it, either.
He reminded us of the threatened lawsuit if its sale is delayed. Then he moved to the broader issue, how the city grows. When the charrette suggested that 1,050 to 1,250 “mixed-use and mixed-income” housing units be added downtown over 10 years, nobody expected the recent growth of university enrollment — now about 35,000, he pointed out.
So students are suddenly the target market for downtown housing, he said, and better to have them close in than farther out. “I don’t want them driving Rock Quarry Road.”
When the vote came, Fred Schmidt and Michael Trapp agreed with Ms. Hoppe; Daryl Dudley and Gary Kespohl with the mayor. (The Fifth Ward seat is vacant since Helen Anthony’s departure.)
Afterward, I stopped in the hallway outside the council chamber to check in with Donnie Stamper, who had angrily denounced the moratorium on behalf of the developers who employ him. I’ve known Donnie and respected his political insights for a long time.
Tuesday, he surprised me. The whole debate wasn’t really about substance, he said. Instead, the groups opposed to the council’s conservatives were creating a “wedge issue” to use against them in the April election.
As I walked to my pickup in the cold, I thought he’s wrong about the lack of substance but right that the future of downtown will be an issue. The challenging candidates and their supporters were well represented in the chamber. Third Ward challenger Karl Skala even spoke in favor of the moratorium. I’ll be surprised if the Niedermeyer, the moratorium and the bigger questions don’t reverberate through the campaign.
They should. Many of Tuesday’s speakers insisted that the Niedermeyer is only an example of the broad policy issues we need to debate and decide. That’s the substance.
We’ve seen local elections that turned on personality rather than policy. This one promises to be different. Buckle up.
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.