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Downtown growing up

As Columbia aims to redevelop downtown by going more vertical, some residents and property owners are feeling squeezed out
Saturday, March 3, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:23 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Chris Harrison plops down on his sofa to watch television after a night of frying chicken and slicing meat in the deli at Gerbes Supermarket. The haphazard clutter of his apartment is evidence of the two decades he’s lived in the small white house on Locust Street.

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He moved into it as a college student in 1987. Harrison, now 45, said he immediately took a liking to the neighborhood and decided to stay.

“Are they gonna force me out?” Harrison asked. “Put me out on the street? I moved here 20 years ago. Right here. The same phone number. Same address.”

The apartment building where Harrison lives is among dozens of properties scattered across the southern half of downtown that are in the cross hairs, targeted by plans for the biggest redevelopment project the community has ever undertaken. It’s a plan that would drastically change Columbia’s central business district over the next 10 to 15 years, replacing aging homes and apartments, sprawling parking lots and nondescript commercial buildings with developments intended to create a more vibrant and inviting atmosphere.

The plan is the product of brainstorming by Sasaki Associates, a Boston-based urban design and planning firm hired by the city and MU to come up with a strategy for how the two can work together to revitalize downtown and encourage private developers to make better use of limited space.

If the dream comes true, downtown would grow vertically, with high-density, mixed-use developments three to five stories tall, Sasaki representative Fred Merrill said.

The plans are more than pipe dreams. The city already has imposed an unofficial moratorium on downtown projects to avoid any conflicts with the Sasaki plan. And city, MU and Stephens College officials are all on board with the ideas and committed to making them happen. They hope for significant progress within three to five years.

“We’re looking to push this, move this along,” City Manager Bill Watkins said.

Carrie Gartner, director of the Special Business District, said the plan makes sense.

“The district is landlocked by colleges,” she said. “We can’t grow out, but we can certainly grow up.

“A key benefit is it’s the city and the university and Stephens College. It’s all our property coming together. It is a joint vision. That’s fantastic.”

Wide-ranging goals

Sasaki was paid $100,000 for its work, and it held nothing back. Its concept, presented as a PowerPoint report in December to more than 90 stakeholders gathered at the Tiger Hotel, is extensive.

It shows a new MU performing arts center at Hitt Street and University Avenue. It calls for a towering 200-room hotel and convention center at Eighth and Locust streets that would challenge the Tiger’s dominance of the downtown skyline. It places a multimillion-dollar museum for the State Historical Society of Missouri at Sixth and Elm streets, where an existing MU parking lot is considered a waste of space.

The plan also calls for:

  • A 950-foot extension of Elm Street to College Avenue, lined with trees and elaborate landscaping to create a parklike atmosphere;
  • An expanded Missouri Theatre with a restored facade, an art gallery and shops;
  • Three new parking garages totaling more than 1,000 new spaces;
  • A Flat Branch “garden district” with fountains, cafes, an extended park and a mix of retail, office and residential space.

Skip Walther, whose Cherry Street parking lot would be displaced by the convention center, supports the Sasaki plan. For the right price, he said, he’d be more than willing to give up his property.

“I think it is a really good idea,” Walther said. “There are a lot of uses for that area. The idea behind this vision is to redevelop parts of downtown Columbia so it is an attraction to people who live here, work here and shop here. Anything that somebody can do to create an incentive is a positive move for downtown.”

Gary Kremer, executive director of the State Historical Society of Missouri, is excited about the plan as well. The society now is relegated to the ground floor of MU’s Ellis Library, a space that allows it to display less than 1 percent of its art collection. The proposed museum, he said, would include space to display more of its collection and provide classrooms so professors can teach Missouri history in the same building that houses thousands of pages of historical records.

Kremer said Gov. Matt Blunt is recommending that the General Assembly budget $200,000 to develop a plan for the museum, but it remains to be seen whether that will happen. In the long run, he said, the museum will require “multiple millions of dollars” from the state, private donors and perhaps the city and county. Kremer said he hopes the university will also contribute money.

“I’m as eager as anyone to find a timeline,” he said.

Mike O’Brien, dean of the MU College of Arts and Science, said the new performing arts center would give the School of Music much needed space and its own venue for public performances. Plans for the project are well under way. The center, as proposed, would include a 1,000-seat concert hall, a 300-seat recital hall and space for classes.

“It really would be just an absolutely up-to-date, state-of-the-art venue,” O’Brien said.

Jackie Jones, vice-chancellor for administrative services at MU, said the university is identifying potential funding sources for the performing arts center and parking garages, including private funds and the For All We Call Mizzou capital campaign. The campaign has raised $768 million with a goal of $1 billion for future university projects.

Jones declined to give a timeline for when construction would start but said the projects are still in preliminary planning stages.

Jones said the Sasaki plan is an “excellent opportunity” for joint planning downtown.

“I’m pleased with how the study went,” she said. “It is the first time something like this has happened, that it was a joint planning effort between the university, Stephens and the city. The private sector is also a very important part of this project.”

Not for sale

Not everyone is thrilled with the Sasaki plan.

On the southeastern fringe of downtown Columbia, a cluster of small white bungalows and red-brick apartment buildings faces an uncertain future. It seems at first glance like a typical college neighborhood, inhabited by tenants who might feel little permanent connection to their homes. Rental signs in windows advertise vacant spaces. Cars are parked haphazardly on gravel driveways and lawns. Paint cracks on aging walls.

But this is more than a neighborhood of transient residents. Many have lived for years in the modest homes on Hamilton Way and Locust, Hitt and Waugh streets. Some hope to stay here for life.

Harrison wishes he could buy his house from his property manager, but says he can’t afford it on a wage of $8 an hour.

“I feel connected to this house, my neighbors,” Harrison said. “I feel like this home is my own. I can’t just pick up and move.”

Looking at the concept map drawn up by the consultants, Mark Stevenson, who owns 15 rental properties in the designed area, became angry.

“Ouch,” Stevenson said. “Hell, they took out all my houses.”

Stevenson’s properties would be wiped out by the extension of Elm Street, the construction of a proposed parking garage and the development of new commercial property.

Stevenson said no one has approached him about selling his land. Those who back the plan, he said, need to consider how it would disrupt the lives of property owners and tenants.

“We have to respect their lives, whether they are renters or homeowners,” Stevenson said. “They have rights. They have the right to be left alone. This is a pretty plan, but they’re messing with people’s lives, their homes.

“This is my livelihood. I don’t want to sell it. My livelihood is not for sale. My job is not for sale.”

Eric Duker, a 22-year-old MU student who rents one of Stevenson’s houses, worries that the redevelopment would displace affordable housing within walking distance of MU. And if the city were to resort to the use of eminent domain, he said, a protracted legal battle could ensue.

“The legal battle could take years, and the political backlash ... could further increase the costs,” Duker said.

A short walk from Stevenson’s properties, Diana Reynard struggles to avoid cursing when she talks about the prospect of being kicked out of her home.

“We need homes. I’m trying to build my life here,” Reynard said.

But she realizes there will be nothing she can do if her landlord decides to join in the redevelopment.

It seems likely.

Harrison and Reynard rent their homes from Jon Livingston. He recently sought to rezone the property, which is targeted by the Sasaki plan. Livingston wanted to tear down the houses and build a mix of retail shops and restaurants with upper-level apartments and offices. He’s confused by the City Council’s rejection of the idea.

“I was looking at what the Sasaki group said,” Livingston said. “I told the city that. They were pressing for that type of work to be done.”

The council’s 5-2 vote against Livingston reflects officials’ desire to delay the redevelopment until the Sasaki plan is solidified. As discussions continue, Watkins and Mayor Darwin Hindman support a temporary suspension of new projects downtown.

“There are things that need practical examination,” Hindman said. “Can we get a developer or builder to come in and implement such a plan? If you allow unplanned development to occur in an area that we are trying to plan, then that is counterproductive.”

Livingston said he’s willing to work with officials to come up with a proposal that makes them more comfortable. But “I’m ready to move forward,” he said. “I’m tired of some of the bureaucracy.”

Back on Eighth Street, Bill Barnhouse said the Sasaki proposal is irritating. Just this year, he moved his Crazy Music store onto the block where the new convention center is proposed.

“I don’t like it,” Barnhouse said. “Actually, I hate it. Why you gotta mess with the little guy? We’re not moving until the bulldozer comes.”

Landlords and business owners aren’t alone. The MU performing arts center is proposed for property occupied by the Hillel Foundation, a gathering place for Jewish students and faculty.

O’Brien, the arts and science dean, said MU won’t run roughshod over Hillel in its quest to build the center.

“We would have to compensate them or do a land swap,” he said. “The university can’t tell Hillel what to do.”

Hillel President Jeff Cohen said the foundation would be happy to work toward an agreement with MU. In the end, he said, it has no choice.

“We can say we want to stay, but the university has the power of saying ‘tough,’ ” Cohen said. “They have the power of eminent domain to acquire the land. We don’t want to get to that type of situation. As long as they can meet our needs, we will be amenable.”

But for students with strong connections to Hillel, the place where Jewish students meet, hold prayer services and eat kosher foods close to campus, the issue is emotional.

“I’d be really upset about losing this place,” said Dayna Fields, a 20-year-old MU student from Northbrook, Ill., who is active in Hillel and started ChaiTimes, a magazine for Jewish college students.

“I hope we wouldn’t sell, negotiate or give it away too easily,” Fields said.

Making dreams reality

An ambitious plan presented by Sasaki in a colorful PowerPoint obviously isn’t enough. An overhaul of downtown’s southern corridor will take a lot of work and a lot of money.

The primary role for the city, Sasaki’s Merrill said, is to encourage private developers to get involved.

Gartner, of the Special Business District, agreed.

“The question isn’t when is the city going to do something,” she said. “The question is when are different property owners and developers going to come together and agree that this is what we want the area to look like.”

There are several steps the city, MU and Stephens College can take, however, including the formation of a formal partnership. And Watkins has said the city probably will embark on a feasibility study to determine whether projects such as the hotel and convention center are viable, or how to make them so. The city could also create an overlay zoning district that would help ensure that developments fit the vision for downtown’s future.

Watkins said the city hopes to apply for a grant through the Missouri Downtown Economic Stimulus Act, or MODESA, which provides money for public infrastructure projects designed to revitalize downtowns. It would pay for some street improvements, sidewalks and parking. Watkins said he could not provide an estimate of how much MODESA might contribute because no grant application has been filed.

The city will also explore the possibility of creating a tax increment financing district that would funnel property taxes generated by new development toward construction and infrastructure costs.

Sasaki has also proposed the creation of an “implementation entity” that could be similar to an industrial development authority. That sort of group would have the power to issue bonds to provide revenue to move some of the projects forward.

In any case, the conversion of downtown will take a while. The extension of Elm Street, for example, will take “several years,” Watkins said. A timeline for redeveloping the neighborhood and building a parking garage will be up to landowners and developers.

Watkins said he hopes to sit down with the residents and property owners eventually and work out fair and equitable prices. The city would use eminent domain only as an absolute last resort, Watkins said.

“We would give them appropriate notice, if we elect to do it,” Watkins said. “I’m thinking six months to a year’s notice. We’re not going to give them 30 days notice to move.”

Watkins said Sasaki has suggested it will take 10 to 15 years to complete the redevelopment. “If we can get it done in that time frame I think that would be great,” he said.

PRINCIPLES

Here are the primary goals and objectives Sasaki Associates used to guide its proposal for redeveloping downtown south of Broadway.

1. Foster urbanism: Encourage mixed-use development at a minimum three- to five-story density.

2. Park once: Develop a network of safe and convenient parking garages to reduce unnecessary automobile usage and promote shared parking.

3. Connect MU, Stephens and downtown: Identify joint development opportunities.

4. Invest in the public realm: Create a pedestrian friendly street and open-space system throughout downtown that connects to MU, Stephens and adjacent neighborhoods.

5. Encourage arts, culture and entertainment venues and projects.

6. Green is good: Encourage environmental, economic and social sustainability in planning, design and new development.

ON THE WEB

For a firsthand look at Sasaki Associates’ plan for redeveloping downtown’s southern corridor, go to gocolumbiamo.com. Under announcements, scroll down to “Campus/City Opportunity Study” and click on the link.


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