Wednesday’s meeting may have been the shortest in the history of the Columbia City Council (two minutes, by my watch, from noon to 12:02 p.m.).
It just might have been also one of the most important. The fate of the three ordinances introduced then seems likely to shape the course of downtown development.
As Samuel Hardiman reported in Thursday’s Missourian, three developers with plans for about 1,300 more beds for students have agreed to pony up nearly $1 million toward the cost of infrastructure upgrades necessary to serve those projects.
Good news, wouldn’t you say? Problem solved, right?
Not so fast.
Angry emails are circulating, motives are being questioned, council members are divided over issues of both process and substance. Monday night’s regular council meeting won’t be short, and another special meeting scheduled for noon Wednesday will probably spoil a lot of lunches.
You can get a sense of how citizen activists are reacting from this email that Tracy Greever-Rice, who sent it to her (and my) council representative, Ian Thomas, gave me permission to share:
“How can this possibly be legal? Two specially-called council meetings to rush three ENORMOUS developments through in a 7 (SEVEN) day period? Did you not hear folks say loudly and clearly that we have to address the issue of the utter inadequacy of C-2 before pushing through any more development?”
Like some other unhappy constituents, she charged that the council has been “blatantly lied to by staff repeatedly.”
I talked Thursday with Mayor Bob McDavid and a couple of his more skeptical council colleagues in hopes of gaining some clarity. I’m not sure I reached that goal, but here’s what I heard.
First, the mayor. For him, he said, the “fundamental question” is and has been, “Where do you want students to live?” His preference (and mine) is close to campus rather than driving distance away.
Two of these projects are adjacent to the MU campus, and the third is just a couple of blocks away. He didn’t need to note the reality that our downtown is bordered on three sides by campuses.
The cost-sharing, he pointed out, is intended only to increase sewer and water capacity enough to accommodate these apartments. It isn’t the total fix that’s still needed and still unfunded.
When I asked about his level of trust in the city staff, he replied, “I have a lot of confidence in Mike Matthes. He’s an all-star.” Then he admitted to disappointment that the infrastructure inadequacy came as a surprise to policymakers. He would have “expected more” in early warning from the professionals. He speculated that Matthes was surprised as well.
Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala qualifies as a skeptic. He’s dubious about the urgency of the process and the amount of the developers’ financial contribution. One reason the tax increment financing idea failed, he assessed, was the speed with which it emerged. He doesn’t want to be railroaded into a decision that would preclude a tightening up of downtown zoning.
Sixth Ward Rep. Barbara Hoppe was, as you’d expect from the council’s only lawyer, a little more cautious. The special meetings, she explained, were called to allow the developers to meet April 1 deadlines for some contracts. She also pointed out that the report on revising the anything-goes C-2 zoning will be presented at Monday night’s meeting.
Still, she said, there’ll be no “automatic approval” of the three deals. She has “serious concerns” about the adequacy of the financial commitments by two of the developers.
What would you have our council members do?
John Clark, longtime unpaid and often unwelcome adviser to the council, urges rejection. The proposals put at risk the city’s full faith and credit, he argued in an email.
I’m usually less certain than he is, though I like to think I’m constructively skeptical. So I’d probably vote yes, with the caveats that the developers must also agree to abide by the height, parking and ground floor retail requirements proposed in the zoning report and that the staff must produce a plausible plan for infrastructure financing.
You’re welcome to disagree.
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.