GEORGE KENNEDY: Debate over development in Columbia has already begun

Friday, April 19, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:45 a.m. CDT, Friday, April 19, 2013

It’s old news by now that our City Council voted 5-2 Monday night to deny rezoning for a Break Time market and service station at the intersection of Rock Quarry Road and Grindstone Parkway. The vote is important enough to revisit, I think, because of what it tells us about the council’s new majority.

As he explained his minority position that evening, Mayor Bob McDavid called the council discussion and the citizen testimony that preceded it “a sentinel hearing.” I took him to mean that this one item on a lengthy agenda should serve as either a promise or a warning, depending on how you view the struggle over Columbia’s future.

The mayor also commented that he looks forward to an ongoing debate with Karl Skala, who recently regained his Third Ward seat on the council and who Mayor McDavid seems to regard as the leader of the opposition.

Then Mayor McDavid briefly sketched his side of the debate. Development brings benefits as well as costs, he pointed out. Land that’s built on produces more tax revenue than pasture, and taxes pay for infrastructure as well as the rest of city services. (Earlier, a Break Time spokesman had predicted that the market would generate about $45,000 a year in sales and real estate taxes, plus 10 or 12 jobs.)

Councilman Skala didn’t get a chance Monday to respond, so I gave him one on Wednesday. His position, repeated during every campaign forum, is that new development typically doesn’t pay the true costs of the roads, sewers, etc., it requires. It should. Why should the rest of us subsidize developers who typically are not charitable organizations? He has suggested that one way to arrive at more equitable cost sharing would be to base development fees on the amount of traffic to be generated.

In our phone conversation Wednesday, Mr. Skala didn’t get into specifics; but he said he welcomes the challenge. He said that, because the mayor sees their disagreement as a kind of intellectual chess game, he has offered Dr. McDavid his choice of the white or the black pieces. In fact, the debate has already begun, in private conversation during the 2010 campaign and another chat after this election.

You’d be hard pressed to find a better test case in the argument over growth than this one. Seldom has an undistinguished two-acre tract loomed larger.

Break Time and its parent, MFA Oil, made what I thought was a strong case. A half-dozen speakers, including the oil company’s president himself, painted such an attractive picture of the market — free air for bikers, fresh and healthy groceries, fruit smoothies, milkshakes made with real ice cream, an expanded beer cave — that I was almost ready to petition for one on my block.

And Grindstone Parkway, while it may have been intended as a limited-access traffic mover, has become a stretch of heavy-duty commerce and high-density apartments. Even Rock Quarry Road loses most of its scenic qualities at that intersection.

That didn’t persuade Mr. Skala and his allies on the council. For them, as Sixth Ward member Barbara Hoppe put it, the fact that previous councils have allowed violations of the land-use guidelines laid out 12 years ago in the Metro 2020 plan is no justification for further violations.

Mr. Skala noted that he remembers when the Red Oak Plaza west on Grindstone had actual red oaks rather than the Wal-Mart Supercenter that was underwritten by a tax break.

Second Ward Councilman Michael Trapp regretted that Columbia has grown “in haphazard fashion” and pledged greater fealty to a more thoughtful planning process.

It seemed clear to me that the new majority saw this as an issue of smart growth versus dumb growth. We have no shortage of examples of the latter.

Monday’s vote suggests that maybe we’re finally getting smarter.

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.

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Ellis Smith April 19, 2013 | 10:50 a.m.

Several comments.

First, during the 23 years I resided in Columbia I seldom commented on local matters (and you can verify that from the archives of both newspapers), largely because I had no clear-cut opinions.

Secondly, I have a problem with the TITLE of George's present piece. In stating that I realize that George himself may not have assigned the title; that may have been done by a "Missouian" editor.

Why shouldn't there be debate? What is wrong with having debate, about this particular issue or any other?

As an engineer (we worship efficiency*, you know) I have a tongue-in-cheek solution to these difficulties: we will just create the position of "leader" (I much prefer the German word for that) or "supreme poobah," or whatever, and that person will make ALL our decisions for us - unchallenged - and we can do away with this silly debating.

Isn't that marvelous? Actually, I would characterize it as the worst possible solution imaginable.

As for Columbia growing in a haphazard manner, that may very well be, but show me any city that at some point in its history HASN'T had that problem. Yesterday is yesterday; tomorrow is tomorrow.

* - We also venerate Saint Patrick and Murphy (Murphy's Law).

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