Council candidates consider makeover plan

Eminent domain remains controversial.
Sunday, March 18, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:23 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

A consultant’s proposal for redeveloping downtown south of Broadway has some degree of support among all six candidates running for seats on the Columbia City Council in the April 3 election.

The Boston-based planning firm Sasaki Associates, hired by the city, MU and Stephens College to create a redevelopment proposal for the area, has floated an ambitious concept that calls for a high-rise hotel and convention center, a new MU performing arts center and a new museum for the State Historical Society. It also calls for extending Elm Street to College Avenue, building new parking garages, creating a garden district in the Flat Branch area and encouraging new private mixed-use developments that build up at least three stories.

Downtown proposal

Consultants from the firm Sasaki Associates created a redevelopment proposal for the downtown Columbia area. These are a few of the proposed changes:
  • high-rise hotel and convention center
  • new museum for the State Historical Society
  • garden district in the Flat Branch area
  • extension of Elm Street to College Avenue
  • new parking garages
  • new private, mixed-use developments

John Clark, who is challenging incumbent Mayor Darwin Hindman for the second time, called the Sasaki exercise a “very valuable educational experience.” The group of “self-selected stakeholders” who commissioned the proposal “seemed to reach consensus on what they wanted to see in the downtown area south of Cherry Street, i.e. some shared goals,” Clark wrote in an e-mail to the Missourian.

“The Sasaki ‘proposal’ is valuable,” Clark continued, “because it presents one possible way those goals might be accomplished.”

The city’s next step is “to take the lead in creating a downtown revitalization planning entity,” Clark said.

Hindman agreed the Sasaki report is a good start on planning for downtown’s future.

“I think Columbia’s downtown is likely to develop no matter what, but I think the ideas provided by Sasaki should be a guide in helping us plan for that development,” Hindman said.

Third Ward candidate Karl Skala also likes aspects of the concept. He said downtown should be as pedestrian-friendly as possible to create the right atmosphere for walkers and shoppers. That means thinking carefully about all the details, even lighting, he said.

Skala’s opponent, Gary Kespohl, generally supports the Sasaki proposal. “I need to study it more,” he said, “but from what I have seen, I don’t have a problem with it.”

Kespohl’s main goal for downtown is to avoid new developments that alter the historic charm surrounding Broadway.

“I have a problem with redoing the Daniel Boone Building,” Kespohl said, referring to a $22 million renovation and expansion that is just getting under way. “If they significantly change the outside, it will hurt the mystique of Columbia a little bit.”

Fourth Ward candidate Jerry Wade said the value of the Sasaki report is that it helps the city think about downtown in a new way. He said infrastructure and streetscapes will be key to any revitalization. Columbia can look to Kansas City for ideas on how to carefully design public spaces, he said.

Wade’s opponent, Mike Holden, said he feels a bond to downtown because he used to have a business there. He supports ideas in the Sasaki proposal, especially the hotel and convention center and the performing arts center.

Since the Sasaki report became public, the City Council has placed an unofficial moratorium on any new development downtown. Both candidates for mayor said that’s a good idea, saying it will be conducive to converting the ideas to reality.

“If you are trying to put together a plan based on Sasaki ideas, it’s got to be coordinated,” Hindman said. “The idea of a moratorium is to make sure that we will at least have a good chance to go forward with the Sasaki ideas, once they start.”

Skala, too, supports a moratorium until the Sasaki proposal is finalized.

“It’s a good thing to step back and plan before rezoning,” Skala said. “Zoning is forever. You almost never unzone things, so we ought to be very careful.”

One controversial aspect of the redevelopment is whether the city will use eminent domain to move it forward. Nearly every candidate said the city must be cautious about doing so.

“I think eminent domain should be thought of as a last resort,” Hindman said. “But it is an essential element in seeing to it that public projects can go forward.”

Skala said he opposes condemnations “just to take property.” The use of eminent domain, he said, “really has to be justified and really transparent, with a lot of discussion,” before he’ll support it.

Wade said he suspects eminent domain might be necessary to acquire the land needed to extend Elm Street. The area now includes a cluster of small homes and apartment buildings.

“I would hope very strongly that eminent domain would not have to be used,” Wade said. “But I wouldn’t rule out the possibility. It has to be done very, very appropriately.”

Holden opposes the use of eminent domain unless there is a specific need.

“I would want eminent domain used specifically for public works projects,” such as a street extension, Holden said, “not for changing ownership from one private enterprise to another.”

Missourian reporters Evita Timmons, Julie O’Brien, Lindsay Toler and Sarah Koci contributed to this article.

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