COLUMBIA – After considering two reports on the Providence Road-Grasslands construction project, Columbia City Council voted 6-1 to hold a public hearing in two months to discuss the possibility of rescinding the first phase.
The first phase, passed on Nov. 19, is part of a two-phase plan that would cost $6.6 million and includes the demolition of eight homes. It involves the construction of new connecting roads between Burnam, Bingham and Brandon roads, the addition of traffic lights and the elongation of the right-turn lane on Providence Road leading to Stadium Boulevard in order to alleviate traffic in the Grasslands Neighborhood and on Providence Road.
Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser moved to hold a public hearing after saying she recommends rescinding the first phase and starting over with a new plan, this time with a deadline for passing a final solution to the traffic problem.
"I really think we just need to come back together with the idea that we're going to solve the problem and move forward," she said.
The first report examined an alternative plan to the Providence Road construction project that could save more than $1 million and spare two homes from demolition.
Rather than constructing a new road between Burnam and Bingham roads, as in the current plan, the Public Works Department report concluded that performing reconstructive work on Birch Street and adding a sidewalk there would solve the traffic needs of Grasslands residents and save money.
Mayor Bob McDavid said he saw it as a failure that the council was uninformed about the Birch Street option before Monday evening.
"I wish the council had been presented with the option on Nov. 19," he said. "I don't feel we were presented with options from which we could choose wisely."
Grasslands property owner Bruce Beckett, who first brought the Birch Street idea to city attention, spoke at the meeting about the benefits of renewing an existing road rather than creating a new one.
“This alternative plan is far superior to (the current one) and should be given your serious consideration,” Beckett said.
Restructuring Birch Street, he said, would address traffic issues and pedestrian safety concerns. It would also continue the original plan of installing traffic lights and spare several historic homes.
“Taking those houses is going to rip the faces off this neighborhood,” he said.
Grasslands resident Susan "Tootie" Burns, however, opposed the alternative plan and asked the council members to consider the needs of all city residents before making a decision.
"Mr. Beckett has redirected the problem to those residents who live on Birch Street," she said.
The Historic Preservation Commission also presented a report about the project that accused city officials of intentionally blocking dialogue between residents and other interested parties, as well as neglecting to hold an interested parties meeting on the current plan.
The commission based the accusation on a 2008 email exchange between Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser and former City Manager Bill Watkins, who told Nauser not to meet with "warring factions" until speaking to them individually first. The emails were exchanged during Nauser's previous term on the council, from 2005 to 2010.
At the Monday meeting, Nauser said that she had attended every meeting possible between 2008 and 2010 and had never heard of intentional exclusion of any parties.
"No one told me they weren't being included or their voice wasn't being heard," she said. "Really the only thing that came out during those discussions was that no one liked any of those plans."
Mayor Bob McDavid said that while the report's accusations will be looked into, the city will not seek litigation of any kind at this time.
"It is what it is," he said. "We'll take it into consideration."
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