GEORGE KENNEDY: Cost of fixing downtown overload will fall on nearly everyone

Thursday, May 8, 2014 | 4:58 p.m. CDT; updated 7:11 a.m. CDT, Friday, May 9, 2014

I called Nick Peckham on Thursday morning to ask what he’d learned from the “public forum” we both sat through Wednesday night. He leads the subcommittee of the Downtown Leadership Council that’s trying to sort out the infrastructure issues that plague our central city.

He learned, he said, “that there are at least two constituencies” with conflicting interests. There are those who want to build and those who live in the nearby neighborhoods that are already feeling the impact of that building.

Both were heard from Wednesday and are likely to be represented at 1 p.m. Saturday when the forum will be repeated.

Both sets of interests will be better served, he continued, if an urban design consultant is hired to lead us toward a clearer picture of just what we want our downtown to become over the next 30 years or so. That picture would enable city staff and policymakers to calculate more accurately what will be required in the way of both “hard” infrastructure (sewers and streets) and “soft” infrastructure (police and fire protection, schools and other essential services).

John Glascock agrees. At his invitation, I stopped by his office in City Hall after I got off the phone with Mr. Peckham. I’ve criticized his work in print, so I started our conversation by asking whether he thought I’ve been unfair. He paused for a discomfiting 30 seconds or so before he replied with a diplomacy I hadn’t expected from an engineer that maybe I just haven’t been fully informed.

He showed me the poster that announces National Public Works Week. It has in the foreground a lovely row of low-rise shops. Looming behind them is a forest of skyscrapers. The week’s slogan is “Building for today; planning for tomorrow.”

Could that be Columbia today and tomorrow, he asked, rhetorically. Probably not — though I hear that the Park 7 development group hasn’t given up on its 20-plus-story student apartment building.

“Engineers need specifics,” he said.

The biggest specific problem that has disrupted downtown development plans is the overloading of ancient sewers in rainy weather. Mr. Glascock and his critics all use the shorthand “I and I” (inflow and infiltration) to designate the extra water that leaks into the sanitary sewer lines and causes overflowing manholes and basement back-ups.

His Public Works Department is working through a 15- to 20-year program of relining or replacing sewers that are as much as 100 years old. Only when that is accomplished will the I and I problem be solved. A bond issue every five years pays for that work, he explained.

More immediately, sewage from the newly approved 36-unit Lofts on Broadway will be temporarily pumped through a circuitous route until repairs are completed on a shorter line.

The much bigger Opus student apartment project will be served, once it goes through the public hearing process, by a connecting line paid for by the developer and an expanded main to be financed partly by the developer but mainly by the city.

Mr. Peckham and leadership council chair Brent Gardner are intent on taking the longer view, aiming to move beyond playing catch-up to develop guidelines that will implement the vision that emerged from the Columbia Imagined process.

The report they expect to deliver to the City Council by year’s end will, Mr. Peckham said, urge more attention to conservation of water and electricity and to sustainable development.

Turning fine words into leak-proof sewers will require more than engineering, of course. When I spoke with Mr. Gardner on Thursday, he several times used the term “political will.” That’s the will our representatives will have to summon not only to deal with current crises but to evolve a future city we can live with. A Realtor himself, he noted that “market forces collide with the vision” sketched by Columbia Imagined and elaborated by the follow-up downtown charrette.

Even if we can agree that new development should pay its own way, a lot of the most expensive sewer work is the maintenance and repair of existing lines. The City Council has asked the leadership council clean-up crew to suggest funding sources.

The engineer’s answer to that question won’t make anyone happy.

“Everybody’s going to have to pay something,” Mr. Glascock told me.

This community conversation, long overdue, is just beginning.

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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Michael Williams May 8, 2014 | 8:27 p.m.

Question: Why should folks NOT in the downtown area pay for repairs to downtown infrastructure?

After all, folks IN the downtown area don't want to pay for suburb infrastructure.

Personally, I think everyone (businesses included) bordered by Garth, Business 70, Old 63, and Rollins should pay for it all by themselves.

(Report Comment)
John Clark May 9, 2014 | 12:54 p.m.

The most interesting and encouraging parts of the presentation by City officials were the two requests from John Glascock and Tad Johnsen to the DCLC, and the City Council. Paraphrased, they both asked the Council/DCLC to tell them what they should plan for. They asked the Council/DCLC to set the policy for how much growth of what kind over what time frame. The City staff have never really asked those questions before. In my opinion, they have desperately wanted that policy direction for 20-30 years; they have made a lot of guesses about policy direction over that time frame, but never checked the accuracy of their guesses before bulling ahead with short-term planning as best they could. Fixing this dysfunctional City Council/staff relationship is the major job of the Council right now. Thank you Mr. Glascock and Mr. Johnsen for finally asking the fundamental question - what do you want us to plan for? - out loud.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith May 9, 2014 | 6:50 p.m.

"Engineers need specifics." While that's a certified truism, seems that maybe a lot more folks than just the engineers should have more specifics. I'll bet we don't disagree on that, George.

The situation seems to be pretty much what we are faced with nationally: everything sooner or later HAS to be paid for by someone, and it's time everyone owned up to that.

As a society we've been impressive at building things but not so good at maintaining them. As a classic federal case, here in Missouri, I offer two words: Pruitt-Igoe. It may have been entertaining watching those buildings being demolished, as captured on national network TV news, but it was damned expensive entertainment!

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith May 10, 2014 | 6:47 a.m.

Again, looking at these matters from a national as well as local perpective (Smith no longer has any concern over who "pays the piper" in Columbia and Boone County), it might be useful to codify such matters in advance, rather than wait until the problem finally - and often dramatically - presents itself.

Would that make the situation more "palatable"? Probably not, but it might save some wrangling. In the present case (locally, in Columbia) it's not that difficult to make a case for either side of the argument.

Michael: On a different topic, did you miss seeing the latest exchange attached to the Rosman column of last Wednesday? Sorry to interject that here, but unbelievable as it may seem, Williams and Smith do NOT have each other's telephone numbers, email addresses or mailing addresses.

(Report Comment)

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