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Public heated over Columbia downtown development hearing

Columbia City Council got an earful Monday night during a public hearing on three proposed student housing complexes downtown and near the MU campus.

“It appears when the wealthy, distant corporate speculators tell this administration to jump, their only question is ‘how high?'” said one resident in attendance.

Cries of support after a demand for the issue to be tabled caused Mayor Bob McDavid to gavel a five minute recess and city manager Mike Matthes to threaten removal of anyone who spoke out of turn, according to procedure.

“I’m frankly embarrassed that we have the infrastructure current conditions in downtown Columbia,” McDavid said after the recess. “We just need to fix it.”

The discord carried over to the dais, when Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala expressed frustration over a perceived communication problem.

“I respectfully disagree with the mayor, I don’t believe we’re doing the best we can. I think we must do better and you’re demanding it,” Skala said.

During nearly five hours of public hearing, council was repeatedly asked to table the proposal until more than $10 million in downtown infrastructure needs were accounted for and built into a budget or master plan.

“This is the first time anyone has had any meaningful information on these projects and you’re going to take formal action … in less than 48 hours from today,” said resident Jeremy Root. “That’s not the process we’re entitled to expect.”

Council had scheduled a budget retreat to address the proposals and infrastructure issues for Tuesday and Wednesday, with a final vote on the three proposals tentatively set for Wednesday afternoon.

One project seemed destined for a smooth approval Monday night. Collegiate Housing Partners (CHP), the developer that had originally planned to replace the historic Neidermeyer building with a high-rise, was stuck in limbo on a 351 bed apartment building at the corner of Conley Avenue and 5th Street.

CHP had met all the necessary city requirements, but was waiting for a building permit. The permit was put on hold two weeks ago when city leaders stopped all downtown area development because of water, sewer and electrical infrastructure concerns. CHP pledged to pay for $150,000 of a $450,000 sewer upgrade for that area, with the city paying the remainder.

Another project, also near west campus, faced a far more uncertain future. American Campus Communities (ACC), which had recently purchased four properties in Columbia, proposed a large complex at Providence and Turner. ACC requested both re-zoning approval and a development agreement.

Matthes said the city manager’s office would recommend a council vote of “no” on the ACC plan because its electric use could not be accommodated until at least August 2018. ACC had pledged $250,000 for sewer upgrades. When coupled with the pledge from CHP, the money would have paid for the entire replacement of a sewer line for both complexes.

The plan proposed came from Opus Development Company, for a large complex at Locust and 8th Streets. McDavid and council noted that the project was the only one technically considered downtown. Opus pledged to provide $300,000 for sewer upgrades in that area.

Many residents called for council to table the ACC and Opus projects until funding for infrastructure needs could be worked out.

“We’re going to be spending the next two days addressing infrastructure problems,” said mayor Bob McDavid. “We’re going to try to figure out a way to pay for it.”

McDavid noted it would likely involved developer fees, usage fees and taxes. The issue would then be put before Columbia voters.

Another public hearing on the three housing projects was scheduled for Wednesday at noon in council chambers at Columbia City Hall.

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