Housing developments debated at city council

Some residents worried the council was rushing toward a decision.

In a heated public hearing, Columbia residents spoke largely against new student housing development infrastructure plans at Monday night’s Columbia City Council meeting.

Three student housing developers looking to build student housing complexes in and near downtown Columbia have had projects stalled because the city’s sewer lines cannot handle the developments.

“It’s a crisis,” Mayor Bob McDavid said. “I’m frankly embarrassed that we have the infrastructure in its current condition in downtown Columbia.”

McDavid said that student housing has quickly developed the area, straining city infrastructure. Before the Brookside developments were built, only about 300 residents called downtown home.

After plans to finance the infrastructure improvements through the creation of a special taxation district failed at an earlier council meeting, the city is now considering financing the improvements through a series of development agreements with three housing developers: Collegiate Housing Partners, American Campus Communities and the Opus Group.

The development agreements have the developers financing portions of sewer repairs and other infrastructure improvements.

Collegiate Housing Partners, a group that once planned on razing the historic Niedermeyer Apartments but backed down after facing opposition, received praise from residents for its development process, which included input from the city and constituents. Its development agreement has it contributing $150,000 toward sewer repairs.

After abandoning plans to build a high-rise student housing complex where the Niedermeyer building stands, the housing group will now build a complex on Conley Avenue, between Fourth and Fifth streets.

Council members and many residents who spoke during public comment seemed receptive to the Collegiate Housing Partners plan.

Most residents expressed concerns with the council’s intention to quickly approve development agreements. The council seeks to vote on the agreements on Wednesday to keep developers’ projects on schedule.

Columbia resident Lisa Schwartz asked the council to spend more time on the agreement.

“As the mother of a 15-year-old son, I recognize a bum’s rush when I hear it,” Schwartz said. “With everything being so hurried, we’re being asked to turn a blind eye to some things.”

Robert Hollis, a Columbia-based attorney who represents the Opus Group and American Campus Communities, urged the council to approve the Opus development agreement. He said Opus only became aware of the infrastructure woes in December 2013, and worked quickly with the city to come up with the development agreement.

“The project turns into a pumpkin very soon,” Hollis said.

The Opus project, a 256-bed development located on Locust Street between Seventh and Eighth streets, has a late 2015 completion date. Under its development agreement, it will contribute a total of $450,000 for sewer main and water main improvements.

McDavid said he supports the Opus project, pointing out that the development is two blocks from campus, meaning students will not be tempted to drive their cars to campus or park in the East Campus or Benton-Stephens neighborhoods.

The American Campus Communities project, a Providence Road and Turner Avenue proposal with 718 beds, was recently discovered to have higher electrical requirements than initially thought. Deputy City Manager Tony St. Romaine said the city may not be able to accommodate the development’s electrical needs until late 2018. The project was initially slated for fall 2016 completion.

The American Campus Communities property development agreement includes $300,000 for sewer repairs. The council is also considering a separate rezoning proposal for the project.

Frankie Minor, director of MU’s Department of Residential Life, spoke at the meeting as a private citizen, but said in his experience with ResLife, housing plans require long-term considerations. ResLife’s Master Plan was approved in 2001 and includes renovation plans through 2018. Minor said he worried that the city may be rushing the development process.

“This is something that can’t be undone once it is done,” Minor said. “Take your time. Please make good decisions.”

McDavid told Minor that he has had “zero communication” with MU administrators over student housing concerns. He said Minor has valuable expertise and asked Minor to see if administrators could become more involved in the city’s student housing plans.

The three development agreements and the rezoning plan will be further discussed at Wednesday’s special council meeting.

Kayla Goldfarb contributed to this report.

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