Debate Over Downtown History Rages on

Apr 24, 2015


Credit Chris Yunker / Flickr

On April 1st Shakespeare’s Pizza announced it would be temporarily closing its 9th Street location for just less than one year as the building it currently occupies is demolished and redeveloped.   Shakespeare’s is just a tenant of the building and the owner of the land sold the plot to the Odle Brothers and the Rader Family who plan to build a multi-story development on the land.   

The news sent Shakespeare’s loyal customers into a frenzy, but Shakespeare’s manager Kurt Mirtsching soon made it very clear the move is for the better.  

“I think a lot of people are going to be very happy when they see what we do with it because it is going to be very much the same from the customers viewpoint, but the facilities that we use as employees to make pizza are going to be greatly improved so we’re going to be able to do even better service,” Mirtsching said. 

And while a moratorium was proposed by former city councilmember Barbra Hoppe in direct response to the public outcry over losing an iconic place like Shakespeare’s, Mirtsching quoted Mayor Bob McDavid to discuss the difference between a historic site, and a place people feel connected to.  

“Our mayor says that there’s historic, there’s nostalgic and then there’s just plain old. Well what’s in play here with this situation is the nostalgia that so many people have for Shakespeare’s pizza.  We’re keeping a lot of what’s in the building and we’re gonna reuse it, and that stuff may be historic, but the building itself, it’s just old,” Mirtsching said.

In fact, most of the buildings downtown are just plain old.  The wording of the demolition moratorium, which failed 5-2, said all buildings 50 years or older within the downtown community improvement district would have needed a resolution to be demolished.  5th Ward councilmember Laura Nauser was troubled by the wording of the moratorium.  

“Certainly we want to try and save our historic properties.  But to do so with a moratorium is certainly penalizing all property owners downtown, especially under the guise of a 50 year age limit, considering almost all properties in our downtown are 50 years old or older,” Nauser said. 

That brings up the issue of what can and should be preserved by the Historic Preservation Commission.  6th Ward councilmember Betsy Peters wants the Historic Preservation Commission to make new guidelines as to what qualifies as historic.

“What do we really want to preserve in downtown because Ms. Nauser’s right, everything is 50 years old in downtown except the new student housing. But just because it’s old like Shakespeare’s doesn’t mean it’s something we should keep,” Peters said.

But even if the Historic Preservation Commission looks at downtown and makes new recommendations about which buildings are considered historic and should be kept, there is really nothing that local government can do to stop a building from being demolished.  

Currently if a historic building is set to be demolished there is a 30 day waiting period that gives the preservation commission time to make recommendations as to what aspects of the building should be kept.  Another option is for the commission to find a different buyer for the building, which is what happened with the Niedermeyer building in 2012.  Second Ward councilmember Michael Trapp says at best, the city council can look into increasing the waiting period which may lead to more time for people in the private sector to step up.  But ultimately, Trapp said the city council can’t do anything to save historic buildings.  

“Land use decisions are made by property owners and that’s something that people don’t always understand.  It’s not a city council decision or will that any particular project should happen at any particular place but land owners make decisions based upon all kinds of reasons,” Trapp said.

So with the demolition moratorium failing and no solid plans to give Columbia’s Historic Preservation commission to the ability stop buildings from being sold and demolished, residents can expect continued redevelopment of the downtown district.  As Mayor McDavid said while discussing the growth of downtown, “If you see an asphalt parking lot downtown, don’t expect to see it there in 20 years.”