Council votes to allow Opus Development Co. to close sidewalks and roads

Tuesday, July 8, 2014 | 4:17 a.m. CDT; updated 11:35 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 8, 2014

COLUMBIA — The storm Monday night caused a small amount of flooding at the Daniel Boone City Building, but the city's actions toward Opus Development Co. prompted a substantial flood of criticism.

The City Council voted 4-3 on Monday to allow Opus to temporarily close sidewalks and parking lanes on Seventh, Eighth and Locust streets for construction of a six-story, 260-bed student apartment building.

Approval allows Opus to close the sidewalks and parking lanes through July 2015 for construction. The building is expected to open in fall 2015,

Before construction can begin, however, the city must approve Opus' applications for demolition, land disturbance, footing and foundations, and building permits. None had been approved as of Monday.

Opus submitted full building plans July 1, which will be reviewed by city staff. Deputy City Manager Tony St. Romaine said the review process could take several weeks, but if the city determines Opus has met various building codes and regulations, a building permit will be issued.

Council members Ian Thomas, Barbara Hoppe and Karl Skala voted against the request for lane and sidewalk closures, which was included among a number of consent items on Monday's agenda. Consent items are usually passed in one blanket motion without discussion.

This drew heat from council members and residents. Skala said he wanted the matter shifted to a public hearing for further discussion and a separate vote.

He said he was "shocked" to see the request on the consent agenda. The main reason the public was angered about the Opus development in the first place was lack of adequate public notification, he said.

Thomas said he was concerned about the lack of transparency surrounding the Opus project. At the end of Monday's meeting, he asked that any change in the status of the project be accompanied by a city of Columbia news release. The motion passed unanimously.

Hoppe said she had legal concerns about language in the second development agreement addressing adequate utilities and infrastructure

"It seems premature to me to move forward on something like this when those issues are still pending," she said.

She proposed a motion to table council action on the sidewalk and parking lane closure permit until Aug. 18. She said staff comments regarding electric and sanitary sewer capacity could prompt public reaction.  Her motion failed.

Others argued during the meeting that placing the item on the consent agenda was routine. Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser said it was consistent with other downtown development requests to close sidewalks and parking lanes.

Community Development Director Tim Teddy said asking for sidewalk and parking lane closures was normal, and the city would need to approve the request if it issued Opus a building permit.

"This is a building that will occupy the entire parcel and there isn’t another alternative (to approving the request) safety-wise," he said.

Council action initially caused public anger in March when it reached a development agreement with Opus during two special meetings within a week. The agreement as Opus to financially support utility improvements and purchase bus passes for its residents.

A referendum petition against the process led the council to repeal the development agreement in June. An amended agreement passed in May and is currently the target of another petition.

The group leading the opposition, known as Repeal 6214, held a news conference before the council meeting to express its dissatisfaction with the decision to include the closure request on the consent agenda.

Jeremy Root, group spokesman, called the action "indefensible." 

"No one in good conscience could place this on the consent agenda," he said. "The city is trying to silence its citizens."

Root said Repeal 6214 is also upset with what he called "lawless acts" committed by City Manager Mike Matthes. He said those include proceeding with development in the midst of a referendum petition process designed to repeal an agreement with Opus.

He also cited refusing to comply with the state's Sunshine Law by not providing documentation of the closure request Root requested from city staff.

In June, he asked for any application (demolition, building, right to use, other) related to the proposed development. Root also said he requested copies of any permits or purchase contracts issues.

Although he said he had received applications for a demolition, land disturbance, footing and foundations, and a building permit but not for the long-term sidewalk and street lane closure permit.

"It seems like an open-and-shut violation of the Sunshine Law," he said.

Regardless of whether Opus proceeds with construction, Root said Repeal 6214 will finish gathering the additional signatures for its referendum petition. The group is aiming to gather 500 additional signatures, he said. The group has until July 16 to submit the additional signatures.

"We are committed to seeing the referendum process through to the end," he said. "We will remain vigilant about the behavior of our city staff and city leaders."

Also on Monday, an agreement with American Campus Communities, another student-housing developer,  was tabled for the third time on Monday. It will be placed on the Aug. 4 agenda. Council also voted unanimously to table a rezoning and variance request from the developer.

The Texas-based developer wants to build a five-story, 718-bed apartment building at the intersection of Turner Avenue and Providence Road.

Supervising editor is Samuel Hardiman.

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Mike Martin July 8, 2014 | 12:22 p.m.

There's a serious discrepancy between what is reported in this story and a Friday story about a demolition permit -- I'm calling it a "hoax" -- that took center stage last night.

On Friday, reporter Caitlin Campbell wrote:

"The city has already issued Opus a demolition permit and land disturbance permit, Deputy City Manager Tony St. Romaine said."

But today, you report (albeit under the supervision of a different editor), "Before construction can begin, city staff still needs to approve Opus' applications for demolition, land disturbance, footing and foundations and building permits. None of those permits had been approved as of Monday."

Indeed, it turns out Mr. St. Romaine -- and city manager Mike Matthes, until he was repeatedly challenged last night -- told a whopper about the demolition permit.

"Trust, BUT verify," especially comments from senior city administrators, who have a history of lying about this and other projects involving Big Money.

I know that's hard to fathom, especially for idealistic young folks hoping the people who lead us are forthright, caring, conscientious, and unencumbered by hidden agendas.

Some of our leaders fit this description. Others, sadly, do not.

On the cool side, you're getting an up close and personal view of how seductive power can be; the skullduggery it can engender; and if not checked -- in large part by an active, questioning, and if need be, bulldogged media -- how power can corrupt.

You're also getting an up close view of how enough light can shine through all this to move a community forward in a real, positive way.

Pay especial attention to Mr. Root, who is as close to an American hero fighting the forces of corruption -- namely, money in governance -- you're likely to see any time soon.

He has plenty of other heroes around him -- people long committed to the Fight for Right here.

But it's been some remarkable, hard-to-quite-define characteristics of Mr. Root's leadership that has glued all these wilful, motivated, and headstrong people together for the last four months, to carry off an amazing feat -- not one, but two petitions bearing thousands of signatures from people all across the city who not only oppose the Opus project, but stand for and support a vision of Columbia that has been reiterated time and again, over many years and public processes.

If you think about those petitions as a poll, they supply overwhelming evidence of how the public would vote if Opus went to the ballot.

In any event, this is really something to see -- especially for a journalist.


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