A student housing developer might be starting anew in an attempt to get their complex approved by City Council.
The Opus Group created a development agreement with the council in which the complex agreed to pay part of downtown’s infrastructure needs in exchange for building there. The agreement, however, was protested by Columbia residents in a petition backed by local attorney Jeremy Root. Petitioners said the council took a special, speedier route to approve the agreement without much public comment.
“I think people are tired of being disrespected and ignored,” Root said. “The petition is a way to demand (to) the government the views of citizens be placed in the center of the bargaining table, not outside the bargaining room.”
First Ward Councilwoman Ginny Chadwick will now sponsor a bill which will repeal the first development agreement — ordinance 6214 — and put a similar agreement in its place, which would follow due process.
“The people of Columbia felt that the unnatural process was not due process and that there was not enough public input,” Chadwick said. “I’m asking Opus to go through the normal process of an ordinance and in that, I also asked them if they would update their development agreement.”
In the new development agreement, the developers will agree to pay the same amount as before to improve infrastructure — $450,000, with $250,000 going to water and $200,000 going to sewer. The development will now have a community space at the ground level, which could be used for retail.
“The biggest problem I had with the original was that it didn’t create active ground for space, and what we wanted is retail on the ground floor along our inner city, because downtown we want mixed-used development,” Chadwick said.
The development coming downtown will help the life in that area improve, resident John John said at council’s April 21 meeting.
“The one thing that will keep downtown growing is to have people who are downtown people,” John said. “You need people who live and work (downtown) to support the retail. It’s a great development. Let the town grow up.”
If City Council did not approve the first development agreement, it might have been opened up to a potential lawsuit to “recoup Opus’ damages,” according to Charles Rogers, a lawyer for Opus. However, Root said the threat of a lawsuit was not that serious.
“I don’t think Opus has good grounds to sue,” Root said. “In fact, in the development agreement, Opus agreed that nothing in the agreement would diminish or usurp the city’s inherent rights. Having so agreed, they can’t turn around now and suggest the city is breaching their contract when they validate a referendum petition.”
The swift process used to approve the development agreement was not the only problem with the project, Root said.
“It strikes me that the dangerous, reckless and irresponsible thing to do is approve a development when you don’t know whether you can support it from an infrastructure standpoint,” Root said. “If we have an infrastructure problem today, we should not be adding six stories of new infrastructure impact onto the overloaded system. And if we are going to do that, we need to understand how we’re going to improve it. We don’t have that plan today.”
If The Opus Group’s development agreement is not approved, it would result in a lower bond rating, which would cost taxpayers and put the movement to fix the downtown infrastructure in a riskier state, Mayor Bob McDavid said after the April 21 meeting.
“The implication of breaking a contract as a city entity has potential repercussions in our reliability to pay back our loans or bonds,” McDavid said. “We can’t do our infrastructure without bonds. I’m told that a drop in our bond rating of just one level would cost us two million dollars more a year.”
The sponsored bill will be put on the council’s agenda for its May 5 meeting.