New Opus agreement passes, residents already planning repeal effort

Tuesday, May 20, 2014 | 1:28 a.m. CDT; updated 8:58 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 20, 2014

*CORRECTION: Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas said he wanted the group petitioning to repeal the city's agreements with Opus Development Co. to get behind an effort to increase impact fees. A previous version of this article inaccurately portrayed his comments.

COLUMBIA — Moments after Opus Development Co.'s stalled downtown student-housing project passed for a second time, residents congregated in the Daniel Boone City Building lobby to sign a petition to repeal the bill.

The Columbia City Council passed a development agreement with the St. Louis-based developer in a 5-1 vote, paving the way for construction to begin on a proposed six-story, 260-bed apartment complex on Locust Street between Seventh and Eighth streets.

The bill repeals the city's old agreement with Opus and passes a new "amended and restated" agreement. Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe cast the lone dissenting vote. Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala was out of town and didn't attend Monday's meeting.

The amended bill gives the developer permission to build in exchange for a $450,000 contribution to the water and sanitary sewer utilities, which were part of the original agreement. It also shows amended construction plans to include street-level amenities for residents such as a fitness room, lounge area and common rooms.

The initial agreement with Opus faced public backlash over the process the council used to pass the bill. It was introduced at a special noon meeting on March 12 alongside two similar agreements with other student-housing developers. One project — Collegiate Housing Partners — passed alongside Opus on March 19 and another with American Campus Communities was tabled until Monday's meeting. It was again tabled, this time until July.

Twenty days after the Opus project passed, a group of residents submitted a petition to repeal the ordinance. The petition's text cites concerns over council's process and the project's environmental impact on downtown. Many people who signed that petition voiced their opposition to the development on Monday.

"What we don't need is another student structure on Eighth Street," Columbia resident Isa Dasho said. "We're going to be facing a student-housing bubble in the next five years."

The meeting's atmosphere grew contentious when the spokesman for the petition group, Jeremy Root, approached the podium to speak against the bill. He asked for five minutes to speak, as is customary for someone speaking on behalf of a group. His request was rejected instantly by Mayor Bob McDavid which was followed by hisses from the crowd. Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas motioned to allow the additional two minutes, and the motion passed.

"We've had initiatives that have tried to get ordinances passed, but we've not had issues where the public has said to the council, 'You've gone too far out of bounds,'" Root said. "Sixty-six percent of residents are dissatisfied with the economic growth plan of this council. More than 4,100 signed a petition to vote this project down ... Passing projects like this is why 66 percent of residents are dissatisfied."

The new agreement was proposed by First Ward Councilwoman Ginny Chadwick after Opus threatened to sue the city if the petition wasn't ruled invalid. Chadwick met with both the petition group and Opus before sponsoring the new ordinance.

Chadwick, who voted in favor of the development, emphasized the importance of policy-making and public engagement in the policy-making project.

"We're picking and choosing projects based on what we like and not what zoning allows," Chadwick said.  "We should work on policy, not attack on individual projects. We are policy makers, not project managers."

She also said the Collegiate Housing Partners project that passed in March should have been subject to the same scrutiny as Opus' and that if the petitioners were actually concerned about infrastructure, they would've tried to halt that project as well.

*Thomas, who voted against the project in March, said the petition group's effort had been stellar and asked the group to get behind an effort to increase impact fees for developers.

The new agreement has a section that states that the old agreement will remain in place if a petition to repeal the new agreement is submitted. Residents have until 20 days after the passage of an ordinance to circulate and submit a petition for its repeal. 

City Counselor Nancy Thompson said this section will protect the city from violating its contract with Opus and if the new bill is subject to referendum petition, the old bill will still have to contend with the petition designed for its repeal.

City Clerk Sheela Amin said the petition to repeal the original agreement received the required amount of signatures after being circulated a second time. 

Dasho said that the petition group would be back together to repeal the most recent agreement. Root confirmed that there will be another petition but declined to release its exact language until later Tuesday.

Supervising Editor is Samuel Hardiman.

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