Columbia City Council might have to reconsider a downtown student-housing development agreement after a petition filed by Columbia residents received 3,632 signatures.
The petition, which disputes a development agreement that would allow The Opus Group to construct a 256-bed student housing complex on Locust Street between Seventh and Eighth streets, needed at least 3,209 notarized signatures to receive further consideration from the council.
“The success of this effort shows that people in Columbia really care about this city; they really care about the way our government acts when making decisions that have a big impact on the city,” said Jeremy Root, a Columbia resident and attorney who began the petition movement. “They really care about the infrastructure, they care about our environmental quality, and they care about this community.”
Root said about 50 volunteers helped gather signatures.
“We asked for volunteers who were willing to gather signatures for us, and lots of people did that,” Root said. “When the city government uses extraordinary processes to approve high-impact new developments, if those processes don’t include an adequate opportunity for citizens to participate, people in Columbia are not going to like it, and they don’t like it.”
The signatures have been submitted to the city clerk, who will verify them to make sure there are a sufficient number of signatures that fit the standards. If the signatures are accepted, they will be sent to council, which will vote again. If council repeats its previous decision, voters will receive the issue in the next election.
“If for some reason we don’t have enough signatures or it is deficient in some way, we are allowed a 14-day period to submit an amended petition,” Root said. “We’re optimistic we won’t need to do that because the support we got on the first petition was, we hope, enough.”
If the council or voters decide to reject the development, it could open the city up to lawsuits, Assistant City Manager Tony St. Romaine said.
The petition began due to the severe infrastructure problem the city’s facing downtown. If there were one inch of rain, there would be an overflow of sewage into the Hinkson Creek basin, according to council minutes from Feb. 17.
Many residents also complained that the city fast-tracked the development agreement approval process. Council considered the agreements at special noon sessions in March instead of at its normal Monday evening meetings, held twice a month.
During a public comment period during the development agreements’ consideration, Columbia resident Esther Stroh told city council members that she thought the whole project was rushed and that the council was not listening to residents’ concerns.
“By accommodating that (Opus’s) hurried-up schedule and being complicit, you’re not fulfilling your role as a public body,” Stroh said.
With the Opus development’s fate up in the air, other student housing projects are in the works. Collegiate Housing Partners began building its newest site April 9 and is expected to be complete by July 31, according to a city news release.
The complex is giving $150,000 to the city to fund part of the reconstruction of a main city sewer line in an attempt to remedy the infrastructure problem.
During the construction, portions of Conley Avenue, Fourth Street and Fifth Street will be closed. When the building is complete, it should house about 300 residents.
The city approved the Collegiate Housing Partners agreement at the same meeting it considered the Opus development agreement. Some residents disapproved of the Collegiate Housing Partners plan but most were in favor, saying Collegiate Housing Partners has been negotiating with the city for years. Last year, the company scrapped early plans to raze the historic Niedermeyer Building downtown and build apartments in its place.