Fourth Ward candidates discuss Grasslands Project, zoning, safety at forum

Wednesday, March 13, 2013 | 10:48 p.m. CDT; updated 1:34 p.m. CDT, Thursday, March 14, 2013

This story has been modified to correct Bill Weitkemper's position on the Providence Road/Grasslands traffic project.

COLUMBIA — Zoning issues, pedestrian safety and a project to address traffic problems on Providence Road and in the Grasslands neighborhood were just a few of the topics discussed by Fourth Ward candidates Wednesday evening at a forum hosted by the College Park Neighborhood Association.

Around 40 people showed up at Trinity Presbyterian Church to hear incumbent Fourth Ward Councilman Daryl Dudley, former PedNet Coalition director Ian Thomas and retired sewer superintendent Bill Weitkemper debate how they would handle infrastructure and zoning issues if elected — or re-elected — to the City Council.

Providence Road project

Candidates were asked how they would address a controversial proposal to reduce traffic congestion on Providence Road and to address traffic flow problems in the Grasslands neighborhood that would involve the demolition of eight residences.*

Dudley said a primary factor in the controversy was that the four stakeholders in the Grasslands conflict — MU, the city, the Department of Transportation and Grasslands Neighborhood residents — had never been available to meet collectively. He suggested the interested parties meeting scheduled for March 20 would set a trend for the months to come.

"You cannot have a discussion and make a decision if you do not have all the parties in the room," he said.

If property had to be taken, it would ideally be from the MU side and not from area residents, Dudley said.

Thomas promised to support rescinding "the November ordinances" if elected to the City Council, citing pedestrian safety, automobile access and congestion as the three main problems that needed to be addressed.

Weitkemper said he does not support the first or the second phase of the existing Grasslands plan. He said that both phases should be reconsidered and that he has reservations about the use of eminent domain to seize private property.*

"I think something needs to be done, but I don't think I'd support tearing down eight houses," he said.

Zoning and parking concerns

Thomas said he would like to continue the existing conversation about form-based zoning. He expressed concerns that the current parking situation would not be sustainable indefinitely for Columbia's "vibrant downtown area."

Dudley said parking was a problem because the city had initially been designed to accommodate one-automobile families. Today, he explained, the majority of families owned at least two vehicles.

"We need to figure this stuff out at a rapid but thoughtful pace, and it will take a little time," he said.

Weitkemper said many of the apartments downtown need to have off-street parking and height restrictions. He added that occupancy issues could be difficult for the city to enforce because of the logistic complications of determining which occupants were residents.

Pedestrian safety

Toward the end of the forum, candidates outlined what steps they would take to keep pedestrians safe from speeding drivers.

Dudley suggested that speed bumps were the most effective deterrents to speeding drivers and said he would consider implementing the devices in the College Park Neighborhood. Because speed limit signs alone were inefficient, he said, greater enforcement was necessary.

Thomas disagreed, arguing that posted speed limits could be highly effective. He cited a 2009 study funded by the City Council that found that speed limit reductions decreased traffic speed by several miles per hour, leading to the establishment of a citywide residential speed limit of 25 mph. 

Weitkemper said both of his opponents had good suggestions, adding that an additional solution would be to encourage residents to report speeding drivers to the police.

"I know if my son was going through there too fast and somebody called me and told me, he wouldn't do it again," he said.

Reception from College Park residents

Linda Wohleber, a College Park resident since 2003, said she appreciated the candidates' comments about improving pedestrian safety.

"I felt like Mr. Dudley and Mr. Thomas had ideas that were useful," she said.

Mary Jo Herde, whose husband, Al Tacker, heads the neighborhood association, said she was grateful for the time the candidates had taken to speak to College Park residents.

"I think you have to appreciate anyone who runs for City Council because it's a relatively thankless job," she said. "It shows a commitment to your neighbors."

Supervising editor is Zach Murdock.

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