GEORGE KENNEDY: Charting the future of downtown development demands a skillful approach

Thursday, March 6, 2014 | 6:43 p.m. CST; updated 6:57 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 23, 2014

At last, the world around us is thawing. I’ll risk abusing a metaphor by suggesting that the freeze on new downtown development may be on the verge of thawing, too. Or maybe not.

This week’s discussion among City Council members and their employees raised both possibilities. That discussion also made clear that what’s at stake is not just a few more student apartments but the bigger issue of what we want our central city — and Columbia as a whole — to be.

Mayor Bob McDavid made a strong case for the inevitability of growth, I thought, at Monday’s pre-council meeting conversation.

“There are some people who don’t want Columbia to grow,” he began. Then, having set up the straw man, he knocked him down easily enough.

While it’s true that some of us old-timers look nostalgically backward, the past 20 years have demonstrated persuasively that, like it or not, we live in a growing, changing city.

Our latest comprehensive plan, the conclusions from the extended visioning process and even the ongoing, unofficial, “people’s visioning” effort all agree that the real questions are whether we can guide that growth and how we’ll pay for it.

We won’t be paying for downtown development with tax increment financing (TIF), at least not any time soon. So City Manager Mike Matthes offered Monday what he called “the knee-jerk staff response” to the rejection of TIF, a set of alternative revenue-generating scenarios that would pay for improving sewer, stormwater and electricity infrastructure enough to allow at least some of the pending projects to proceed.

As he and the mayor ran through the possibilities — among them fee increases, a bond issue and the delaying of some other projects — I surmised that they were looking for ways to avoid discouraging those hopeful developers.

When I called Mike a couple of days later, he said that was true. The mayor’s ideas for piecing together the financing were, he agreed, at least plausible.

However, the three council members seated, appropriately enough, to Mayor McDavid’s left responded to the push for action by saying, in effect, not so fast.

Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala objected that the proposed solutions ignored the “soft infrastructure” of police and fire protection as well as transportation demands.

The Fourth Ward’s Ian Thomas asked how big a share of infrastructure costs developers are paying now. Sixth Ward representative Barbara Hoppe didn’t say much, but she has long advocated slowing development at least until the review of zoning rules is completed.

Later, Ian told me by phone that he intends to continue to insist on “tangible progress on the review of development fees and the downtown zoning review” before supporting more major construction in the area.

The zoning under review most immediately is the C-2 category that currently allows almost anything and requires almost nothing of downtown development. It allowed, for instance, those wood-framed, sidewalk-touching, no-parking Odle Brothers apartments on College Avenue at Walnut.

Mike Matthes told me Wednesday that he hopes to have revisions before the council within the next two months.

That timetable leaves open the trickier and broader issue of who pays, and who should pay, the costs of development. Council members and their constituents have argued about that for years without resolution.

There’s no question, at least in my mind, that, as Karl Skala put it passionately Monday, “We’ve been subsidizing development for years.” He’s also right that we should quit doing that.

But what’s fair? Is there a level of fees that would push new construction out of downtown, even out of the city? We wouldn’t want to do that, would we? We want higher density in the central city, but do we want that density to come exclusively from student housing?

Those questions, which seem to me fundamental, were implicit in this week’s discussion. They weren’t answered, of course.

The visioning processes have engaged what I’d call the activist portion of the citizenry. The comprehensive plan that was endorsed by council and citizens provided clear guidelines but no enforcement mechanism. Now it’s up to our elected leaders to translate those guidelines into law.

Isn’t that really the only way to answer the most important questions?

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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