GEORGE KENNEDY: Downtown development rules need revision

Thursday, October 24, 2013 | 4:35 p.m. CDT

You’d be hard-pressed to find an uglier intersection in Columbia than the one that is supposed to be the "green gateway" to downtown.

That’s not my term. It comes from the consultants who led the public planning process three years ago that produced a detailed vision of how the core of our adolescent village should be developed. You remember the charrette, don’t you?

It was, or seemed to be, a pretty big deal at the time. It produced an extensive report complete with pages of lovely full-color sketches of the future and proposed guidelines for creating an urban wonderland.  

Here’s how the charrette envisioned the intersection: “the Broadway & Providence area will be transformed from an area of vacancy and surface parking lots to a vibrant mixed-use neighborhood hosting many important historical, cultural and recreational amenities.”

That was 2010. In 2013, our gateway is bordered by an ugly payday loan office on the northwest corner, an ugly drugstore on the southwest corner, an ugly cluster of largely abandoned buildings on the southeast corner and an ugly parking lot on the northeast corner.

What could possibly make the situation worse, you ask? The answer, our City Council decided this week, is another drugstore across from Walgreens. After considerable discussion, including an acrimonious exchange about parliamentary procedure between Mayor Bob McDavid and Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala, the vote was 6-1 against the application by CVS.

The outcome was determined, I thought, when First Ward activist Pat Fowler showed a series of slides with more attractive, more urban designs CVS has constructed elsewhere. If the Walgreens was a mistake, as advocates and council members appeared belatedly to agree, why repeat the mistake across the street?

Meanwhile, on the southern edge of downtown – which the charrette defined as Elm Street and labeled the “Flat Branch District” – a New York developer has suggested that it would be nice to have a 23-story apartment building where a bar now stands. (The charrette planners proposed building heights in that district of three to 10 stories.)

As I understand it, pretty much the whole downtown area is currently zoned so permissively that almost anything goes. CVS could still build its pharmacy without the niceties imposed by city staff. The skyscraper could rise. Venture at your peril into the area of Walnut Street and College Avenue to see what else the current code allows.

The would-be highrise developer has asked, we’re told, for a guarantee that the city won’t change the rules while that project is in progress. I’m sure every developer would like a similar assurance.

But what about the rest of us? What guarantee do we have that the heart of our city will evolve in the direction we’ve publicly agreed we prefer? None, so far.

We have enticing visions, and we have a new master planning document that is intended to guide growth, limit sprawl and invigorate downtown. However, neither of those guides has the force of law. Enforcement will require zoning rules. Our rulers recognize that.

A few weeks ago, Sixth Ward Council representative Barbara Hoppe proposed a 6-month moratorium on downtown development while a consultant works on what is intended to be a zoning code for the future. Her council colleagues voted that down.

Maybe they should reconsider.

The most far-sighted of rules make no difference if they come after the fact. The facts of downtown development are that it’s being crowded with student housing, choked with traffic and starved for parking.

That could be a good thing. Certainly the bar owners and fast food franchisees must think so. When we run out of room for cars, perhaps the re-aligned bus system will fill its mainly empty seats. Higher density downtown may reduce the demand for urban sprawl.

Or it could be we’re headed for trouble. How attractive will those Odle brothers apartments be in 10 years? Might we be stuck with a half-empty highrise on Elm?

The council majority made the right call on CVS. I’d suggest that another good call would be a timeout on new permits until we have a downtown zoning code that takes those pretty plans off the shelf and puts them into practice.

Let’s not rush into anything we’ll live to regret.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. He writes a weekly column for the Missourian.

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John Schultz October 24, 2013 | 7:32 p.m.

If George would like the intersection of Providence and Broadway designed in a manner pleasing to him, then he should buy the land. The charrette was a ridiculous exercise in navel-gazing by people who don't own the land they are offended by, with almost no buy-in from the general public.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith October 25, 2013 | 6:14 a.m.

Continuity is good. Why not design the intersection of Broadway and Providence to match the beauty of University of Missouri-Columbia? (The folks at UMKC, UMSL and MS&T will admit their campuses aren't particularly attractive, however functional they may be.)

I spent last Tuesday morning on the campus of Webster University, a place I'd never seen before. I was pleasantly surprised by the attractiveness of the campus - with a relatively small space to work with, and segmented by Webster Groves' public streets. Real planning does count for something. Well, as we say down thar at Hillbilly Tech, George, "Bigger ain't necessarily better."

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