Columbia residents question downtown development

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COLUMBIA - With four new construction projects currently underway in downtown Columbia, some Columbia residents are concerned about the city's infrastructure.

In February, Columbia City Manager Mike Matthes proposed a tax increment financing district, or tiff, for necessary infrastructure improvements in the downtown area. 

"Back almost a year ago, when the tiff was being discussed the city manager said on numerous occasions that there was no room for additional downtown development, that the infrastructure was used up," Columbia resident Peter Yronwode said. "And since then, we've seen what? Four different new projects built with no actual change in infrastructure availability yet at all."

Yronwode said the city lost his trust in the way they handled infrastructure issues.

"Everyone feels that the information provided by the city has been less than totally correct, you might even say disingenuous, if you were being unkind. I'm just concerned that people know that this is going on, that the city has not been totally forthcoming and that's been our concern all along that these new projects put stress on the infrastructure," Yronwode said. "Yet nothing has really been done about it."

Yronwode said he's seen a lot of hand waving, plans, and proposals but very little progress.

The Downtown Leadership Council or DLC has been working with Columbia City Council for more than nine months to come up with a comprehensive list of recommendations and suggestions the city should do next in regards to infrastructure.

Co-chair of the DLC Brent Gardner said the first thing DLC requests the city do is restore public trust.

"I think the city has lost the trust of the public with this and I think the city needs to regain the trust of the public," Gardner said. "This report shows the council how the city could rebuild the trust and start to make some progress in this."

But he said the public may never get an apology from the city.

Some council members say they weren't on the same page as the city manager's office when the tiff was first introduced in February.

"I think that there was an issue of poor communication by some city staff," 4th Ward Council Member Ian Thomas said. "From my perspective as a council member, I recall that Mr. Matthes wanted to introduce a tax increment financing district downtown to generate a lot of money quickly."

The tiff was proposed to help fund infrastructure needs downtown so developers could continue to build. The public was told there was not enough infrastructure for new construction. 

"There did seem to be a bit of a rush to try to get that tiff district approved which kinda made me want to step back and say "whats going on here?"

Thomas said after the council voted the tiff down, there was another rush to approve some very specific development contracts.

"That didn't make me feel like we had a transparent process."

"Because of all that, and the rush to meet the deadlines given to the city by developers, I think the public got disenfranchised and felt like there were agendas at play that didn't involve them so I think that has created a problem."

Thomas said the city has to change the way it does things from now on.

"I think we need to be absolutely transparent, we need to avoid rushing things to meet the desires of one particular stakeholder," Thomas said. "We represent the entire city of Columbia, the whole public voice and we want to give people a chance to weigh in on this issue and then make a more thoughtful decision."

Yronwode agrees and said he thinks the public needs to be better informed. 

"They need to tell the truth, acknowledge the problems exist and solve the infrastructure issues before allowing new development to go forward."

Because Yronwode feels strongly about this issue, he has picketed certain development group's offices with other Columbia residents suggesting they want more answers about what's going on and how the developers are building with limited infrastructure.

"It stresses other aspects of infrastructure that haven't really been addressed at all like parking, traffic, like police, and fire, like litter and pedestrian traffic on the sidewalks," Yronwode said. "All the things that make downtown a pleasant place to be, I believe are under stress by this influx of student housing."

KOMU 8 tried contacting the City Manager's office for several weeks and didn't receive a reply.