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GEORGE KENNEDY: Consequences of hasty development decisions realized

Thursday, April 24, 2014 | 5:34 p.m. CDT

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.


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Comments

Ellis Smith April 25, 2014 | 9:36 a.m.

George, as somone who has been less than kind to your observations regarding University of Missouri System, it does appear to me that you are performing good service with your pieces concerning the city of Columbia.

Obviously, everyone isn't going to agree with your observations; that's an impossibility. But by writing these columns you serve to focus people's attentions on what's happening.

In making my observation I want to note (again) that I no longer HAVE A HORSE IN THE RACE: I paid taxes in Columbia for 23 years; now I no longer do. As I have said before, and I mean it, in spite of Columbia's problems, I found it a good place over all to live; I relocated due to other factors.

Since you've mentioned comic strips, perhaps a quote from the now long defunct comic strip "Pogo" is appropriate: when Pogo 'Possum states, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

[Pogo and his deceased creator would also like us to "drink Ku Ku Kulak, the pause that rededicates." :)]

Have a nice day, George. We Miners ALWAYS have nice days; some are just nicer than others.

(Report Comment)
George Kennedy April 25, 2014 | 2:33 p.m.

Ellis --

Thanks for the kind words. It's always good to see a miner come up for air.

I certainly agree that Columbia, though it's no Rolla, is a good place to live. The trick is to keep it that way.

gk

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith April 25, 2014 | 3:34 p.m.

George,

Our faculty and students, present and former, sometimes refer to Rolla as our "Cultural Kalahari[Desert]," but Phelps County citizens are some of the nicest folks you will ever find in Misouri.

Since posting this morning I rembered an old and honored engineering saying that could be applicable to Columbia's sometimes heated civic debates:

"When you're up to your posterior in alligators it's sometimes difficult to remember that your initial objective was to drain the swamp."

Pax, George.

(Report Comment)
Skip Yates April 25, 2014 | 7:33 p.m.

George: "Learning from those mistakes, though -- thats priceless". Only been living here abour 20 years; however, it seems to me that when it comes to local development projects, too often lessons learned aren't.

(Report Comment)
Traci Wilson-Kleekamp April 26, 2014 | 2:48 p.m.

Thank you George for a very thoughtful editorial. I was quite frankly not surprised that the Mayor gave instructions to find ways to invalidate the petitions submitted by citizens.

More remarkable, Mayor McDavid has yet to ask what can he and his colleagues can do to increase public trust and confidence in the City administration's decision-making process AND outcomes. Personally, I've yet to see where student housing became a priority in the public visioning process or any other long term strategic plan?

Seems to me that the dysfunctional culture of Columbia politics favors piece-meal infrastructure policies and development decisions despite an overwhelmed infrastructures and limited funds to solve existing problems. I understand growing pains related to growth and change but I find it very irresponsible to make development decisions in the absence of public policy that are not financially and environmentally sustainable.

Tax payers will ultimately pay a serious price for City Management's misrepresentations, denials, delays (unnecessary & costly consultants) and more importantly false and/or unreliable data.

I have been known to say: It's always the council's fault. I say this in closing, because for the most part, the Columbia City Council has not demonstrated (at least not to me) that they are in charge of their employee City Manager Mike Mathes. Lastly, Mayor McDavid has yet to take the lead in modeling a transparent public process backed up with facts and reliable data.

In my opinion, the petition symbolizes a vote of no confidence in City Hall. Whether the petition is invalidated or not --- City leadership under Mayor McDavid has failed to win the support of many engaged citizens.

(Report Comment)

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