The Columbia City Council voted to approve one of the presented options for the Flat Branch Expansion Project, which will include an art installation project at the corner of Providence Road and Broadway Street.
The first option had the support of the CoMo 200 planning group, the Parks and Recreation Commission, and the Downtown Leadership Council.
But it will eliminate half of the parking lot also located at the corner for the plaza. The city owns that half and the other half is owned by Mark and Clydia Stevenson. They brought forward a second option, which would keep the parking lot whole but provide some extra land.
According to a staff memo, this would reduce the amount of space for Gateway Plaza. The Parks and Recreation Department came up with a third option as a potential compromise.
Over the past few weeks, the Stevensons have offered a fourth option. This involves an exchange of easements and allows for an entry drive to their parking spaces, according to a staff report.
Part of the “confusion,” according to the council memo, comes from an agreement Stevenson and the city entered into in 1986. They agreed that the city would build a parking lot that would utilize Stevenson’s half in exchange for his use of the parking spaces. That agreement was terminated last August.
The Downtown Community Improvement District said if option 2 or 4 were chosen, it would pull its promised funding. It said it would support option 3 if there were some tweaks made.
“The CID voted at its April 9 meeting to review its financial commitment to this project should option 2 be selected, creating a far less optimal site,” said CID Director Bob Hohenstein. “The board of the district may elect to invest public improvement funds into other projects in downtown Columbia instead.”
But business owners and tenants in the area stood firm in their calls for the city to not do away with what they considered precious parking. While there would only be a handful of spots actually affected, they felt it would still deter people from coming to their businesses.
“I just don’t want to alienate small business,” said Tyler Nielsen, who owns and operates Real Property Group. “I want to celebrate Columbia, but I don’t want to do that at the cost of small business.”
Councilman Ian Thomas said he had been monitoring the parking lot at the southwest corner over the past couple of weeks and said he never saw the lot full.
“Weighing up the burden on the local businesses of their customers having to maybe park a little further away and walk versus the integrity of the original vision and design, and all of these community-driven committees and task forces, and boards and commissions that worked on this, then I plan to support option one,” he said.
The council approved option one, and directed interim City Manager John Glascock to work with stakeholders such as Stevenson to figure out some other parking options for the tenants and businesses.
ABC 17 News asked Stevenson for a comment after the meeting, but he said he needed to take some time to digest and analyze the council’s decision.
The project is mostly privately funded, with the CID intending to provide up to $1 million for the first phase of the project, which includes cleaning up the existing park.
The city bought land off Providence Road for about $1 million several years ago in preparation for the project, which will include the so-called Gateway Plaza at the southeast corner of Providence Road and Broadway Street.
Construction is expected to begin in the spring of 2020, and the park will be placed in service in March 2021.
Stakeholders hope the project to be finished in time for the city’s bicentennial in 2021.