Any proposals for new developments or rezonings downtown will face an uphill battle with city officials until a long-term vision for the area moves forward.
City Manager Bill Watkins and Mayor Darwin Hindman favor a temporary prohibition on major changes downtown, a position that has prompted an argument over property rights. While the mayor and city manager have stopped short of calling for a moratorium, they want a “pause” on new developments or rezonings.
“That is not to say the council couldn’t be happy and feel comfortable (in approving redevelopments) fairly quickly,” Watkins said.
The pause stems in large part from the advice of a Boston-based consulting firm, Sasaki Associates Inc., which in December presented an ambitious plan for redeveloping the downtown corridor south of Broadway between College Avenue and Providence Road. The plan calls for a hotel and conference center, a museum, new parking garages, a mixed-use “garden district” in the Flat Branch area and a parklike redevelopment of Elm Street, which would be extended to connect with College Avenue.
The city and MU each paid Sasaki $50,000 to develop the plan. Stephens College is also a supporting partner in the redevelopment strategy.
Hindman said Sasaki Associates recommended a temporary pause in development while its vision moves forward and builders express interest in implementing some of the plans. The purpose, he said, is to prohibit counterproductive unplanned development in an area the city is trying to revitalize.
“We’re not really denying property rights. We’re saying, ‘Wait a minute, we’re not going to let you change the uses from what they are now for awhile,’” Hindman said during debate over a downtown rezoning request at the City Council’s Monday night meeting.
The council at the same meeting voted 5-2 against a request for rezoning by Jon Livingston, who wanted to tear down three houses he owns at 1109, 1110 and 1112 Locust St. He cited a drug problem in the area and said he wanted to redevelop it with a mix of retail stores and restaurants with apartments and offices above.
Livingston, who said an emergency prevented him from attending the meeting, said he was confident the council would approve his request.
“I had assumed it had passed,” Livingston said. “It does strike me as strange, because as far as I knew, the city was fully backing me.”
Livingston wondered aloud why the city would pay for the Sasaki study, then make landowners who want to engage in redevelopment wait.
“You guys paid all this money for a company to come in, and now you have no idea what you want to do,” Livingston said. “That’s my property, and I’ve been working with developers and architects to get this done.”
The Columbia Planning and Zoning Commission had recommended unanimously that the council approve Livingston’s request. City staff also recommended approval, acknowledging in a report to the council that the property lies within an area that Sasaki identified as an “opportunity site.”
Some council members said that one of the reasons they denied the request was because Livingston didn’t attend the meeting. Some said their votes did not reflect an unofficial moratorium on development downtown.
Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser, along with First Ward Councilwoman Almeta Crayton, voted in favor of Livingston’s plan. Nauser said the Sasaki-backed large-scale redevelopment is in its earliest stages.
“I kind of have a problem ... denying zoning to somebody for a plan we may or may not adopt and which may be five or six or 10 years in the making,” Nauser said. “To just deny property rights to someone for a plan that we might have in the future or adopt, I don’t think that’s fair.”
Nauser said the city should offer ample warning and allow community discussion before deciding to delay development.
Fourth Ward Councilman Jim Loveless said calling the delay a moratorium is too strong. But the council, he said, will closely scrutinize every application for rezoning in the downtown area while it works toward implementing the Sasaki plan.
Second Ward Councilman Chris Janku voted against Livingston’s plan but said people who own land downtown shouldn’t feel deterred.
“I don’t want to suggest we are going to somehow freeze things because it is almost impossible to do,” Janku said. “I don’t want to give the impression or scare people to not move forward with their projects.”