City Admits Downtown Development "Pushed Envelope"
COLUMBIA - The North Central Neighborhood, just north of downtown, is not a cut and dry place full of track homes.
"I would say it's eclectic," said longtime resident Dan Cullimore.
He said with the mix of students, community gardens, young professionals and families, it has a distinct character. For almost three years it's been fighting to maintain that character as the Brookside franchise has built apartments on the north and south side of Walnut St., adding enough space for up to 727 residents, equivalent to the population of the neighborhood itself.
The discussion began in early 2011, when Brookside tried to rezone the property on the north side of Walnut to C-2, the open zoning that encompasses most of downtown. Neighbors advocated for C-P or "planned business district", which requires more city oversight. The Planning and Zoning Commission agreed. Former commissioner Helen Anthony said, "we may be giving up a lot of control," with C-2. The city council disagreed, and granted C-2 to the owners of the franchise and Trittenbach Construction, Nathan and Jonathan Odle.
"The ability to get the students closer to the college is a big asset...If the rules are too stringent they won't build," said Mayor Bob McDavid.
C-2 provides for "predicatability" according to the City of Columbia. There are far fewer requirements for developers to meet. The sidewalks must be 10 feet wide and there are no setbacks (space between the sidewalk and building) allowed. There is no height or density limit, nor a requirement for parking.
"If they have C-2, they can construct anything that's permitted within the district," said city planner Steve MacIntyre. That can mean student apartments or a lumber yard - C-2 allows for a lot of flexibility, known as "open-zoning."
C-P has far more rules and requirements. There is a height limit, yard size requirements, and plans for a drainage system and parking. It also requires meetings with the city and plans cannot change without city approval. McDavid and MacIntyre said these rules make the process unpredictable for developers because the city can impose unforseen requirements.
Most of the lots on the south side of Walnut were already C-2 when Brookside purchased several to build more apartments. They had to re-zone a few of them, and began that in spring of 2012. Neighbors realized Brookside was planning to build apartments at a city meeting - they had received no notifications or attended any discussions for plans about the building because the majority of it was already C-2. This is also when the four-story parking garage discussion was in play.
"There were a lot of surprises along the way," said Cullimore.
Other surprises included the north building looking different than its rendering and a large jump in residents: the north side has about 300 beds, but adding the south side doubles the total. What is said during planning and zoning and city council meetings isn't binding.
"As projects develop and things change, there are things that come up, things we have to change based on the size. Ultimately, the city approves it. Everything was taken through the appropriate channels. It is quite lengthy," said Mike Hall, civil engineer for Trittenbach Construction.
McDavid said that before starting projects, most developers will invest hundreds of thousands of dollars looking into a property, developing plans, and going through the proper application processes. He believes C-2 fits well with the overall plan for downtown.
"It was an ashpalt parking lot before. We've seen storm water and traffic improvements. And they (Brookside) are engaged in the bus line," said McDavid.
But the controversy and tensions it has caused with permanent residents in the Brookside case has been a learning experience for the city, said MacIntyre.
"College and Walnut was one of the situations, well two, that tested that policy on whether C-2 is a good policy in the downtown district. I think it pushed the envelope, and it brought the policy into question," he said.
"What I expect from city council is different from what allowed to occur. I expect the city to look after the residents of the neighborhood while accommodating the new development," said Cullimore.
The city is currently undergoing a zoning review.
For the North Central Neighborhood, the buildings are going up and not much can be changed.
"The fall out, it has been everything the neighborhood said it would be. We've had increased flooding in basements, traffic problems, increased trash, increased vandalism, increased noise. Aside from the parking, there was nothing in the planning process to address those things," said Cullimore.
They are looking ahead, forced to find the best way to welcome new neighbors in the fall while maintaining their eclectic character.