Columbia P&Z recommends rezoning for downtown student housing

Feb 24, 2014

The City of Columbia’s Planning and Zoning commission voted Thursday night to recommend approval of a large student housing development project near the MU campus. The proposed development, located between Providence Road and Fifth Street, is pushing forward despite uncertainties about downtown Columbia’s infrastructure.           

The Planning and Zoning commission’s approval doesn’t mean the structure is guaranteed to be built. This is not an easy task. Development Services Manager Patrick Zenner said strictly from a zoning perspective, the project meets all requirements.

“The decision that the commission made was to support the project based on its compliance and its value that it adds," Zenner said. "Not necessarily by any means consenting to the issue of utilities and the capacity thereof is available.”

But the approval of this project is ultimately a matter for City Council, and it’s contingent on a number of things, most importantly, improving downtown infrastructure. City Manager Mike Matthes says the infrastructure is already maxed out. After the proposed tax increment financing district was voted down Monday night, City Council is looking for other ways to finance the necessary infrastructure improvements.

But developers have timelines of their own, and if the necessary infrastructure improvements can’t be guaranteed, they’ll start to back out. Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala hopes city council can agree on a plan to finance these improvements and set them in motion after a retreat in mid-March.

“I would like to believe we can put something in place with some assurances to at least encourage these developers, who have these projects in line, that they can expect the infrastructure will be in place within a couple of years,” Skala said.

This student housing project hopes to begin leasing in 2016, Skala says it’s unclear if the infrastructure will be ready. But as there are currently 7 development projects lined up, he says the City Council shouldn’t feel too rushed by any one project.

Third Ward councilman Karl Skala says city council is exploring several ways of paying for the infrastructure. like government bonds, and user based fees. That is, proposing that these businesses, which have a very large impact on the infrastructure, help pay to improve the infrastructure.

“We have to rebalance the public, private contribution for infrastructure," Skala said. "As we were a small town, we tended to subsidize development, because we needed to. We wanted to grow. We wanted to generate tax revenues. We can no longer do that. We have grown, and now we have maintenance costs that are taking lots of those funds.”

Skala says the taxpayers should pay for most of the infrastructure, because everyone benefits from it. But right now he says public funds pay for somewhere around 80 or 90 percent of infrastructure. He says he’d like to see that number drop closer to 60 percent, and let private developers pay the rest.