Opus the penguin was a lovable, bumbling character in "Bloom County," a comic strip that was usually entertaining and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.
Opus the development company doesn’t seem especially lovable and certainly isn’t at all funny — unless you get a chuckle out of its bluster and its threat of a $5 million lawsuit against the city.
Mayor Bob McDavid isn’t chuckling. In fact, he sounded both angry and worried as he lambasted the citizen petition aimed at halting the student apartments Opus the developer wants to construct just west of the university campus and just south of downtown. At the end of another marathon City Council meeting this week, he asked the city staff to find grounds for invalidating the petition.
At the beginning of that meeting, the lawyer imported from Minneapolis by Opus the developer recited what he said were multiple legal flaws in the petition, which was signed by more than 3,500 people in a campaign of only about a week. (It must have been the sight of the attorney and his dark-suited team parading single-file out of the council chamber that somehow reminded me of Opus the penguin.)
As a matter of law, the petition may be deficient. As a matter of politics, though, the community sentiment it reflects will be hard for our elected policymakers to ignore.
It appears to me that our brief but passionate love affair with student apartments in the central city is cooling considerably. The pro-development majority on the council, always tenuous, looks to have shifted, now that Ginny Chadwick sits in the First Ward seat formerly occupied by Fred Schmidt. And the Downtown Leadership Council has declared its skepticism of the guidance provided by the city staff.
A 4-3 vote by the council on another development issue illustrates the shift. Before the April 8 election, the council had approved, with conditions, the preliminary plat of a residential subdivision proposed by Rob and Sarah Hill next to Rock Bridge Memorial State Park.
Monday night, despite staff recommendations and a warning of legal liability, the post-election majority refused to give final approval.
A couple of days after that, the leadership council endorsed the idea of imposing some limits to downtown’s anything-goes C-2 zoning while consultants complete an overhaul of the city’s antiquated zoning code. If those limits had been in effect, the Odle brothers, for example, wouldn’t have been able to do what they’ve done.
More significant, I thought, was the leadership council's request that $100,000 or so be spent to hire another consultant to study infrastructure problems and recommend solutions.
It’s hard to see the second action as anything but a vote of little confidence in the city staff, which has provided its diagnosis of sewer, electricity and water shortcomings and its proposed solution.
The diagnosis was that overloaded pipes and wires meant no more downtown development, which turned out to be not quite true. The favored solution was tax increment financing, which turned out to be dead on arrival.
You’ll recall that last year, Barbara Hoppe, longtime leader of the council’s Green faction, proposed a six-month moratorium on downtown development to allow for more thoughtful consideration. The pro-development Grays defeated that motion.
In retrospect, her idea looks even better. Such a moratorium, imposed in advance of projects since proposed by Opus and others, could have foreclosed or at least modified plans that now seem thwarted either by infrastructure inadequacy or by public opinion. Everyone, including developers, would have been better served.
Well, as Councilman Michael Trapp said in anguish Monday night before casting a reluctant vote in favor of the Rob Hill subdivision, we must live with the consequences of our mistakes. Having voted for it once, he felt constrained to do so again. Four of his colleagues decided instead to try to rectify their earlier error.
It’s always preferable, of course, to avoid the mistakes in the first place. Correction can be costly. Learning from those mistakes, though — that’s priceless.
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.