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How a 27-year-old Amendment Helped Change the Face of Downtown Columbia

Emerald O'Brien

  There were no signs that downtown Columbia would become a center for housing 27 years ago, nor that it would become a hotbed for debate about it. But that’s what the last several years have proven to be, going as far as a lawsuit against the city, and development in downtown Columbia still divides residents.

For two years, the outside consulting firm Clarion Associates has been working to update the city’s development code to help regulate the influx of large new building. On Wednesday November 4, Columbia’s Community Development Department will hold a public forum on the final draft of that code. The draft will be available for public comment until December 4th, and then the Planning and Zoning Commission will make a final review before sending it to city council for voting.

Thought the problem of development only appeared in the last decade, it isn’t an issue that arose out of nowhere. In fact, some of problem goes all the way back to 1988.

At the time, many of the businesses downtown had lofts above them that the owners would rent as apartments. But because of the city code, every time they had a new tenant come in, they had to get individual approval from the city. So a group of business owners, including Tom Mendenhall, who still lives in Columbia, went to the city council to get it changed.

“Before the ordinance was passed, you had to go down to the city and apply for a conditional use permit every time you changed tenants,” Mendenhall said. “If they didn't have a quorum, sometime it could run as long as two months, well by then most of the people had found a different place to live.”

The council passed an amendment to let the owners have a permit for the space, instead of for individual tenants. Then, the whole thing was mostly forgotten.

“By changing that, as long as you were in compliance with the city's rental licensing stuff, everything was good and you could just go ahead and rent the property that you owned accordingly,” Mendenhall said.

But the thing is, the ordinance didn't just help Mendenhall house a dozen people in the 80's. He didn't know it at the time, but that same ordinance would help him house 156 people years later.

Mendenhall is now part of Remm Ltd, the development partners behind the six-story Lofts on 9th Street and the new Lofts on Broadway.

Plenty of other developers have been helped by the amendment, too. The Lofts are one of three downtown developments that went up this summer, along with the Opus complex on 8th and Locust and Collegiate Housing Partners’ Todd Apartments at Conley and 5th. And there are more in the works, including the new Brookside complex being built in the footprint of the original Shakespeare’s Pizza.

That’s not what was supposed to happen though, at least not according to Edwin Kaiser, who was a city council member in 1988.

“I do not recall that it allowed for these monstrosities that we now have for example on both sides of Walnut on College Avenue,” Kaiser said.  

The amendment was called Bill 358-38, and it did not explicitly allow for large-scale housing developments. But, without the amendment, owners of those kinds of complexes would have to get approval for every one of their tenants, and that would have made current developments that house hundreds of people basically impossible.

"If I had realized that at the time, I would have voted against the ordinance, no question about it,” Kaiser said. “However, hindsight is always better than foresight."

These additions to downtown Columbia are the kinds of buildings that have caused heated debate throughout the city in recent years. And the amendment certainly had its part in the issue. But, it was just one part of a perfect storm that took Columbia from the sleepy downtown of Kaiser’s days in office to a battleground for a fight between those who support development and those who want to see it end.

The thing that ties is all together is called C-2 zoning. And it’s one of the things that, in the next few months, could be thrown out in favor of a new zoning code.

C-2 is a designation meant for central downtown businesses. Rusty Strodtman, a commissioner on Columbia’s Planning and Zoning Board, said that for years, that zoning type the most lax requirements in the city. No height restrictions, no curb width requirements and no parking requirements for residential buildings downtown.

“It's not complete free reign, they just can't build anything that they want but there is a lot more freedom in the C-2 than there are in some of the other zoning,” Strodtman said.

But in 1988 when open zoning and the ability to easily house people downtown were combined, it not only gave opportunities for the property owners of the time, but also for developers years later.

For a long time, though, it didn’t really matter, because few builders pushed the limits. It wasn’t until a proposal for a 24-story building in 2012, when public outcry led the council to put interim zoning restrictions in place. Those rules, which currently govern downtown include, a height limit of 10 stories, one parking space for every four bedrooms and no dwellings on the first floor of buildings along Broadway and 9th streets.

This of course, didn't apply to the housing complexes that had already been built. Edwin Kaiser says that as a councilmember, he didn’t expect the type of buildings going up now and he definitely didn’t expect there’d be so many of them. 

“I don't think anyone anticipated that we would in fact have this explosion,” Kaiser said.

And because it was so unexpected, the code couldn’t keep up, so the city hired consultants to come up with ways to re-write the development codes for the city. As for downtown development, the new proposal changes C-2 zoning to M-DT, or mixed use downtown. It also has several other changes in the section, including height restrictions and new parking requirements for new developments.

There’s still a long way to go. Even after a review and potential adoption of the new codes, there are other issues, not the least pressing of which is who will pay for updates to infrastructure – developers or taxpayers. But the next few months will be key in developing a new code that will keep both sides happy. And after that – well, maybe it’ll be another 20 years until we find out if the new codes will do just what city leaders intend them to.