Providence Road: a pothole of confusion

After nearly nine years, the highly debated Providence Road Improvement Project will come to a vote next week.
Phase 1 of the Providence Road Improvement Project garnered mixed reactions from community members because the plan called for the acquisition and demolition of eight homes on Providence Road between Burnam Road and Stadium Boulevard.

At the peak of rush hour, cars on Providence Road near Stadium Boulevard stand bumper to bumper while pedestrians attempt to navigate the sea of congestion safely.

These are problems that City Council and the city staff, including the city manager and Public Works Department, have attempted to alleviate for nearly nine years, and it’s still a heavily debated topic among Columbia residents to this day.

Initial attempts at fixing the problem

It began in 2005, with a Transportation Ballot Project that budgeted $997,500 for Burnam Road, Rollins Street and Providence Road improvements. Since then, the city has collaborated with the Missouri Department of Transportation and MU in its attempts to find a solution.

From 2005 to 2012, city staff worked on the problem off and on during a series of work sessions and meetings. City Council voted to approve what resulted in Phase 1 of the Providence Road Improvement Project on Nov. 19, 2012. Council also voted to put Phase 2 of the plan on the city’s Capital Improvement list, but questions regarding Phase 1 have dominated the discussion since that time.

The $6.6 million plan included alterations to the intersections and turn lanes along Providence Road as well as severing of access to Providence Road at Bingham Road in order to direct traffic from the Grasslands Subdivision to a proposed traffic signal at Burnam Road.

To accomplish this, a new residential street parallel to Wayne and Providence roads would require the acquisition of three parcels of land that front Providence Road. More importantly, via means of eminent domain, the city would acquire and demolish eight homes on Providence Road between Burnam Road and Stadium Boulevard.

Consequences for homeowners

MU Vice Chancellor for Research Robert Duncan owns one of the eight homes slated for demolition. He spoke to the council at a meeting Feb. 15 and described his experience trying to contact the city about the removal of his home. Duncan received a notice that something would happen shortly before he went to India for business in late 2012. He tried to contact city staff prior to leaving and while in India but was not able to reach anyone. Upon returning to Columbia in late November, Duncan finally spoke to someone for the first time regarding his concerns. Other homeowners experienced similar communication issues regarding the home removals, Duncan said.

“There was no attempt by anyone to notify us of this action,” Duncan said. “If the city is going to separate someone from their property against their will, I believe the city should actively reach out to us.”

The Columbia Historic Preservation Commission started voicing opposition to the plan after its passing in November. Commission members expressed concern that City Council and city staff did not follow all the legal steps in the process of passing the Phase 1 resolution.

At the Feb. 18, 2013 City Council meeting, the Historic Preservation Commission submitted a report with its concerns to the Council and several residents spoke for or against the plan.
The report cites an email exchange in 2008 between Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser and former City Manager Bill Watkins. In the email exchange, Nauser expresses frustration about not being notified of preliminary meetings with stakeholders. Watkins replied saying that he did not recommend she meet with stakeholders yet and let the staff meet individually with stakeholders. The practice of meeting separately with stakeholders on potential traffic solutions for the Providence Road expansion appears to have continued until the council’s approval of Phase 1 of the plan Nov. 19, 2012, according to the report.

According to the report, the Historic Preservation Commission believed that the council "approved a major transportation plan on November 19, 2012 that was not properly shared with the public as required by the ordinance process.”

Section 22-71 of Columbia’s Code of Ordinances requires the council hold an interested parties meeting prior to approving a plan for improvements.

City staff hosted two Interested Parties meeting in 2008 and 2010, but the concept of acquiring and demolishing eight homes through eminent domain and building an access road parallel to Wayne Road and Providence Road was not one of the proposals presented to stakeholders in either meeting, according to the report.
City staff members were aware of the requirement for an Interested Parties meeting for the new Phase 1 and Phase 2 plans, according to emails between the president of the Grasslands Neighborhood Association Robbie Price and former Fifth Ward Councilwoman Helen Anthony.

Public Works Director John Glascock insisted that city staff did follow procedure and that the city wasn’t legally obliged to hold another interested parties meeting, Glascock said at the February 18 meeting.

“Our normal process is to gather information from interested parties, not to design a project,” Glascock said. “We gather information at these meetings and put everybody's opinion out there … we rarely as ever have two interested parties meeting. So we did follow the process.”

Like the Historic Preservation Commission’s report, Glascock also referenced section 22-71 of the city’s ordinances in defense of the passage of Phase 1. He zeroed in on that fact that according to the ordinance, the city is required to have at least one Interested Parties meeting to explain concepts of a project and gather opinions and suggestions.

Grasslands Neighborhood resident Tootie Burns also spoke in support of Phase 1 of the plan and insisted that the council not take another step back on a problem that needs a solution.

“Nothing has changed since Phase 1 has passed and Phase 2 has been proposed,” Burns said. “Let's remember why this made sense and continues to make sense and move forward with the plan that comprehensively addresses our eminent needs and also addresses the needs of our city.”

Back to the drawing board

After reviewing the report and listening to public comment, Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser proposed the motion to call a public hearing about rescinding the Phase 1 plan.

"This is an issue that's been going on for many years," Nauser said. "I think what we have here is a prime example of Columbia, where we are always trying to go back and fix a problem we create because we didn't plan adequately for the future."

Nauser agreed with the Historic Preservation Commission in that the proper procedures were not followed.

"I have to say that I'm disappointed in the fact that this process appears that it did not by all accounts follow proper procedure and that to me is the biggest concern," Nauser said. “We were talking about taking $7 million of community taxpayer money to spend on a problem that the city could not follow our proper procedures to adequately notify at the proper meetings. That's disturbing, especially when we're talking about the use of eminent domain."

Multiple council members said that if they had known about the other plans available, they might have voted differently in November.

"The decision we made was on the information we had at the time," former Fourth Ward Councilman Daryl Dudley said. "After that vote, we received much more information that we could have made a more informed decision if we had known all the information before. So, now we are essentially possibly starting over."

On March 20, city staff hosted a meeting open to the public at the Activity & Recreation Center where 10 options for the Providence Road Improvement Project were presented. Council will hold a work session today to discuss those options.

City Council will vote April 15 on whether or not to rescind Phase 1 of the Providence Road Improvement Project. The council that will vote is not the same City Council that approved Phase 1 in 2012. After last Tuesday’s municipal elections, Dudley and former Third Ward Councilman Gary Kespohl lost their seats. When council votes this time, newly elected Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas and Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala will replace the incumbents. Additionally, Nauser had not yet replaced former Fifth Ward councilwoman Helen Anthony last November.

Depending on how council votes April 15, another vote will occur in May on how to move forward with the plan.

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