Columbia City Council held a third public hearing at noon on Wednesday to discuss three contested student housing development proposals, approving the first two and tabling the third.
The council voted unanimously to approve a proposal by Collegiate Housing Partners for a 351-resident development on the south side of Conley Ave., between 4th and 5th Street, and voted 4-3 to approve Opus Development Company's plan for a 256-resident building on the north side of Locust Street between 7th and 8th streets. Both developers hope to be finished in time for fall semester 2015.
The proposal for a larger 718-bed complex proposed by American Campus Communities on the corner of Providence and Turner was tabled until the second meeting in May.
Through emails and previous public hearings, city residents have voiced concerns about whether the city can support the utility requirements of these developments. Many are especially concerned about the sewer lines. They are also concerned about the perceived speed with which the city has been making these decisions, and the timing of the third hearing in the middle of a workday and following a city council retreat.
Representatives from the developments came to the meeting to explain that they have already put a lot of time and money into these developments in good faith, and have a timeline to keep that has been made more difficult by delays. They have attempted to meet the city part-way on costs for utility renovation. CPH has pledged $250,000 to replace parts of the sewer system, and Opus has agreed to finance 100% of the cost of fixing the sewer and storm-water systems on their block. However, the city is still unsure exactly what serving these developments will cost taxpayers.
Each council member spoke saying that they would support CPH’s proposal because the development is already so far along in the process that the city could not reasonably deny them at this point, despite unsettled concerns about how to fund the sewer upgrade. Mayor Bob McDavid said the project has been going on for two years and that as Collegiate Housing Partners have met all of the city's demands and claim to meet all energy needs, “I think we are obligated to approve the permit.”
Despite his support for the proposal, third ward councilman Karl Skala noted that he thought the city was close to saturation for student housing and that he does “not like this compressed and expedited process,” or “the idea of having noon meetings” because such practices lead to mistrust from constituents.
The vote on Opus' development proposal was more contentious, ultimately passing 4-3. The mayor said that in his opinion rejecting the proposals would be immoral, arbitrary, and capricious as well as arguably illegal. Second Ward Councilman Michael Trapp approved of Opus' plan in more positive terms, saying, “this is a classic example of a project that promotes smart growth” as it moves away from surface parking and towards a denser downtown. He notes that Columbia would have an infrastructure problem to fix even if there was no new development, and that the new developments downtown have been positive for the city.
“Without Brookside we get no Lucky’s,” he said. “I don’t think it was until we started to really put some large numbers of people downtown that we got something like a grocery store.”
Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe was among those who did not support the measure, noting that they were unsure of how to finance the utilities.
“The fact of the matter is we don’t know how we’re going to supply that sewer, and we have the opportunity now to take some time to decide how to do that and a window of opportunity to make sure the downtown develops in a way that conforms to the comp-plan.”
Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas proposed a motion to table the decision, even though Opus had indicated that a tabling motion would be a de-facto no as they were not willing to wait for a decision. He cited the need for more time to consider how to solve the sewer problem. This motion failed 4-3 and was followed by the final vote, in which he voted against approving the proposal.
Noting that there were several things he liked about Opus' proposed building, he added: “I hope that a similar development comes along when we’ve had the chance to have a community conversation, assuming that conversation supports increased development in the downtown.”
The final proposal considered was from American Campus Communities, who plan to build a large complex on Providence. ACC was willing to contribute $300,000 to the trunk line sewer. According to The Columbia Tribune, developers told the city just last week that they would need 5 megawatts of electrical capacity for the building, twice their original projection.
The council voted to table the proposal until the second meeting in May.