Editor's Note: This is one of several stories on Columbia’s visioning process that were reported and written by journalists in cooperation with The Missourian, Vox magazine, KBIA/91.3 FM and KOMU/Channel 8.
COLUMBIA — The final report for Imagine Columbia’s Future is in.
It’s a bulky document of 255 pages that summarizes scores of meetings where hundreds of volunteers whittled 1,500 “big ideas” down to 128 strategies for making Columbia what they want it to be 20 years from now.
Whether residents and public officials can bring those goals to fruition, however, remains to be seen. Key to the success of visioning is whether developers, who are in a strong position to determine the pace and character of Columbia’s growth, will give it any notice.
Representatives of the development community question whether visioning will make much difference, saying many objectives are vague and subject to interpretation. They and others also note that previous efforts at community-based planning have either failed or been only marginally successful.
Economic development emerged as one of the central themes of the visioning document. When 470 people voted on priorities during a community-choices open house in mid-September, six of the 10 most popular goals included business objectives, such as developing infrastructure to support technological industries and “promoting positive attitudes toward economic development.”
Craig Van Matre, a prominent land-use attorney who frequently represents developers in front of the Columbia City Council, said he doubts whether such broadly defined ideals will hold much sway or even create significant obstacles for his clients. He said the people involved with visioning missed an opportunity when they set about honing the big ideas produced early in the process.
“Rather than refine with specific suggestions that would actually make a difference and would crystallize opinions, they contented themselves with vague generalities,” Van Matre said.
He isn’t alone in his thinking. Skip Walther, an attorney and member of the Special Business District board of directors, believes Van Matre’s clients and others will continue to do what they want.
“They might be subject to different regulations than what we currently have,” Walther said. “Ultimately it won’t have an effect on people whose job it is to develop property and make money doing it.”
Developers’ ability to work the system is well-documented. The contentious debate over construction of the Wal-Mart Supercenter at Broadway and Fairview Avenue is an example. In 2004, the City Council found itself sandwiched between Van Matre, representing The Kroenke Group, and citizens with a petition bearing the signatures of 5,000 people against the plan.
Van Matre delivered an ultimatum in writing: If the council didn’t agree to rezone 12 additional acres for planned commercial use, allowing the supersize Wal-Mart, “an inferior product will result.” Van Matre banked on the presumption that the council would bend if it understood it had no better option.
Looking back, Van Matre doesn’t deny his hardball strategy.
“If the council felt like they had the choice of no Wal-Mart, I knew they would say no Wal-Mart,” he said. But his ultimatum, as he sees it, gave the council “political cover.”
“They had to be able to say to people, ‘Look, Van Matre gave me no choice,’” hesaid.
Jeff Barrow, chairman of the Columbia Planning and Zoning Commission, said strong-arm tactics are common in the developers’ “game.”
“Sometimes they have ridiculous proposals that no one would ever approve,” Barrow said. “They come to us and they’re asking for everything, even though they only expect to get something.”
While the visioning report describes the process as an “unprecedented dialogue on issues, values and aspirations for the future,” previous smaller-scale efforts have fallen short. Van Matre cites the recent work of a land-use task force, appointed by then-Planning and Zoning Chairman Jerry Wade and charged with reforming the way the city deals with development proposals.
Van Matre was a member of that group. He went as far as drafting an ordinance to codify specific changes in the process and wanted to present it to the City Council. His fellow panelists, however, decided to hold off and instead “hit them with a two-to-three page summary with highlights and new concepts.”
To date, the land-use panel’s work has produced nothing but words on paper, Van Matre said.
Barrow points to the Rock Quarry Road Special Area Plan as another example of a failed vision. Created by a task force that included planning experts and neighborhood residents, the proposal included specific provisions for protecting the scenic character of the Rock Quarry Road corridor. After months of work, it was adopted by the City Council in 2002.
About a year later, Van Matre came to the council to propose a Wal-Mart Supercenter along Grindstone Parkway and on heavily forested acreage immediately west of Rock Quarry Road.
Barrow, Rock Quarry residents and some council members cried foul, saying the development was a clear violation of the special area plan.
In the end, Van Matre and his clients won out. The trees were cleared, the land was flattened and the Wal-Mart was built. It’s the dominant feature of the landscape today.
Barrow said the special area plan was largely ignored. The council, it seemed, just couldn’t turn away such a financially lucrative project.
“We spent all this time working, and then the city manager and the City Council come along, and we were like kids playing in the sandbox while the adults made all the decisions,” Barrow said. That experience, he said, causes him to doubt the visioning project’s ability to overrule developments that conflict with its ideals.
“I got burned on the Rock Quarry Road Special Area Plan,” Barrow said. “I’m a skeptic now.”
In the past, the city has embarked on large-scale attempts to define a vision for itself. Columbia 2000, created in the early 1990s by a task force co-chaired by Darwin Hindman before he became mayor, might be the most successful. Among its most ambitious goals were the construction of a public recreation center and the aggressive development of trails. Both have happened.
Similarly, the Columbia Metro 2020 Plan is often cited as an accomplishment. Adopted in January 2001, the plan established general guidelines for land use in Columbia and the urban fringe, with the goal of ensuring that new developments are compatible with surrounding property uses.
Planning commissioners and council members often look to the plan for guidance on development proposals, but it is by definition a set of suggestions, not restrictions or regulations.
People “use it when it suits them and disregard it when it doesn’t,” Van Matre said.
Mark Farnen of Strategists LLC, a marketing and public relations firm, frequently represents developers. He disagrees that previous city planning has failed. Documents such as Metro 2020, he said, establish common ground for discussion. They were never intended to be a set of “hard, fast rules.”
“The final decision in every instance always comes to the City Council,” Farnen said. “They have final approval, no matter what.”
So, is visioning any different? Both Van Matre and Farnen said the goals seem vague. Looking over the list in the visioning report, Van Matre mentioned several times that he was unsure what statements meant. Promote entrepreneurialism? Encourage positive attitudes toward development?
“How can you say that the people have spoken?” Van Matre asked.
Farnen, who was a member of the visioning project’s economic development group, said he and other participants complained early on about the broad reach of goals to ACP Visioning and Planning, the consulting firm that guided the visioning process.
“We were calling for detail early in the process,” Farnen said. “We didn’t want people to come away empty-handed.”
As a result, the citizen topics groups began working on action plans, trying to identify key strategies and key players to achieve them. Some strategies are fairly specific but seem to lack real substance.
One action step, for example, calls on the City Council to adopt a resolution supporting tax-increment financing and transportation development districts.
Another calls for a fast-track approach to approving developments. Yet another cautions the council against working too fast on any new regulations that might drive up the cost of development.
Don Stamper, executive director of the Central Missouri Development Council, said the visioning project’s strategies are general for a reason.
“There’s a lot of latitude in how you get it done,” Stamper said. “There’s a level of flexibility and creativity.”
Still, Stamper said, “Many of the visioning recommendations have significant expense associated with them. Part of it is going to be driven by how we pay for it.”
Farnen said the failure to address funding sources was another problem with visioning. Van Matre agreed and noted that improvements in one area, such as public transportation, usually come at the expense of another.
“The problem with visioning is it didn’t ask the hard questions where you juxtapose choices,” Van Matre said.
The next step in the visioning process is to develop a means for implementing the plan. ACP has outlined its recommendations, which call for a short-term blue-ribbon panel to get the ball rolling, then the creation of a separate entity to oversee implementation over the next five years. City officials have yet to decide exactly how they’ll proceed.
Whatever they do, Van Matre said there’s at least one advantage to approving the vision plan.
“It will allow the City Council, I suppose, to say (to citizens), ‘We gave you the opportunity and you didn’t take advantage of it.’”