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JOHN'S LOT: Is pricey vacant land key to historic home demolition push?

Conflict of interest -- or happy coincidence?
 
COLUMBIA, 2/3/13 (Beat Byte) -- Is it any coincidence two people leading a push to tear down eight historic homes along Providence Road in the Grasslands neighborhood also own a vacant lot in the path of the bulldozers and could make a whole lot of money?

That's what neighbors involved in a controversy over the proposed demolitions -- otherwise known as Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the Providence improvement project -- are asking. 
 
My answer: Heavens yes. It must be a coincidence -- and just a coincidence -- because I know those two gents, like them, and can't believe they'd manipulate such a charged situation just to make a few bucks.

Grasslands residents and others attended the most packed meeting this writer has ever seen in the new City Hall chambers to debate the Providence proposal Thursday night.  With lines out the door, Historic Preservation Commission chair Brian Treece -- whose group hosted the event -- had to delay the start time to accommodate the crowd.

Three-hour tour
 
After three hours of public testimony and presentations about the current plan and alternatives, it became clear senior city administrators were up to their old tricks, stifling debate and meddling with democracy.  Then-city manager Bill Watkins had reportedly even asked then-City Councilwoman Laura Nauser not to talk to neighbors so his staff could have "maximum" flexibility to negotiate a deal.
 
The deal:  Spend millions buying property, tearing down homes, widening Providence, adding crosswalks and installing traffic lights. Meeting attendees seemed to like the crosswalks and lights, but hated tearing down the homes. It would scalp the Grasslands they exclaimed, rip off its crown, and destroy Columbia's most picturesque gateway.
 
What's worse: many neighbors didn't even know about the 2-phase plan and felt entirely left out of the process.

Who knew what and when eventually emerged, but not before Treece and fellow commissioners grilled city traffic engineer Scott Bitterman, who did the old Jackie Gleason/Ralph Kramden "homina homina" routine when asked "whose plan is it to tear down all these houses? Who made up the plan? Where did you get it?"
 
The Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT), Bitterman shimmied.  No, not MoDOT -- maybe the city. No, no -- not the city. MoDOT. Yeah, that's it. MoDOT.

Then Treece referenced a constituent email from former 5th Ward Councilwoman Helen Anthony that spilled the beans. Three men were behind the plan we'll call John, Roberto -- and Glascock.

The Three Houseketeers
 
I like John and Roberto so I'm kind of disguising their names.
 
Let's just say John's last name rhymes with "lot," as in the vacant lot on the corner of Providence and Burnam he might sell to the city for for several hundred thousand dollars if the plan goes through;  and Roberto's last name sounds like "Price," as in the price of the lot, which he owns in partnership with John.   If eminent domain is used, all the better: no capital gains taxes.
 
Glascock everyone knows as City of Columbia public works director John Glascock, who strikes some folks as Columbia's version of Simon Bar Sinister. "The plans for Phase 1 and 2 were formulated by" these three men, Anthony wrote, which surprised me because John and Roberto served as presidents of the Grasslands Neighborhood Association while pushing these plans. 

Roberto is the current president; John is past president.  Neighborhood associations must be formally approved by the City Council;  the two men represent their neighbors before the Council and are public officials in that capacity.
 
Among the gripes I've heard:  As official representatives of city government, i.e. presidents of a neighborhood association, it seems like a huge conflict of interest owning a 12,000 square foot vacant lot in the path of an $8 million city-state highway juggernaut.
 
Neither man should be pushing a plan that could make them a bundle of money.
 
Even more galling, John and Roberto have nothing to lose.  Unlike their neighbors, they own vacant land -- no house to demolish, no wrenching goodbyes to a piece of CoMo history, no emotional upheaval.  Just an oddly-shaped lot worth a whole lot more than it would be if Uncle Mo hadn't come calling with his taxpayer checkbook.

Coincidence -- or conflict?
 
So why do I like Roberto and John?  Roberto is one of the most personable -- and as my wife says, handsome -- fellows you're ever gonna meet.  He's charming, gracious, kind, and has a twinkle in his eye whenever he talks to you.

And whenever I've spoken to John, he's humble, soft-spoken, almost diffident, never saying a mean word about anyone. He's also the closest thing Columbia has to a patron saint of historic preservation, which makes his involvement in the Providence demolitions supremely ironic.
 
Both John and Roberto are also among Columbia's most successful men, the kind of people you might hold up to your kids. They're leaders, by virtue not only of money and power, but charm, affability, and smarts.  Without John's vision and ability to implement grand plans, downtown Columbia wouldn't be half what it is today. And I can't think of a better neighborhood representative than Rob.

Still, they do own the lot -- bought it back in 2003 County records indicate, with two other fellas, including another Grasslands neighbor. Coincidentally, it keeps being said the Providence improvement project kicked off about a decade ago. "Neighbors should know about it by now," supporters have griped.  "We've been plannin' it nigh on ten years." 

Since right around the time John, Rob, and the fellas bought that lot.
 
I personally think John and Rob owe their neighbors a choice: either sell the lot or abstain from further involvement in any Providence plans.  Maybe even step down from neighborhood leadership.  Phase 1 and 2, meanwhile, should be scrapped.  Well-intended or not, the process may have been tainted by a conflict of interest.

Meanwhile, I'll continue to hope the whole thing is nothing more than a happy coincidence.
 
-- Mike Martin for the Columbia Heart Beat
 
 
RELATED:
(Click "Map It" to view the lot)
 
 
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