When proper zoning is not enough

COLUMBIA, Mo 6/10/14 (Analysis) --  The developer "is hereby provided notice that the City may not be able to provide the necessary utilities to the property...beyond the current level of service and use of the land."

Sound familiar?  That clause is at the heart of a battle brewing between city leaders and citizens over Opus Group's six-story downtown Columbia student apartment.   But the same clause appears in a city subdivision ordinance regarding another large project quietly snaking its way through the city bureaucracy. 

Development giant and quasi-Columbia native Stan Kroenke wants to build University Centre South:  a McDonalds and a 15,000+ square-foot strip mall next to Lucky's Market, on a 3.3 acre parcel his TKG St. Peters Shopping Center group owns abutting the Columbia Cemetery.   The parcel opens onto Providence, just blocks from the Opus site, near several busy intersections leaving the Mizzou campus.   Plans for two of three retail "pads" are online here at page 7. 

TKG (short for The Kroenke Group) has asked Columbia's Board of Adjustment for a permit to allow construction of a paved parking lot that will increase stormwater run-off from the site.   The request has triggered the usual concerns. 

"The site has access to City of Columbia utilities; however, it is unknown whether or not existing public storm sewers, sanitary sewer, electric, and water lines have adequate capacity to accommodate," documents with the request explain.   The city's traffic engineer has also expressed concerns about "the ability of the site to provide adequate access that prevents traffic hazards and minimizes traffic congestion."  
Pedestrian infrastructure "may not be adequate," the engineer explains.  "Particular issues include the poor condition of the sidewalk along the site's Providence Road frontage." 

Enter a Development Agreement, a document even city officials don't seem to fully understand.  Though land may be properly zoned, large projects that tax infrastructure, from subdivisions to apartments to strip malls, require a second puzzle piece for completion:  City Hall's agreement to provide water, sewer, electricity, and so forth, often with "contributions" from the developer. 
Such is the case with Opus -- and TKG. 

"While the proposed plat meets all applicable City Zoning and Subdivision Regulations standards, the subject site lies within a constrained portion of the City’s downtown sewer system," the Columbia Planning and Zoning Commission reports about the Kroenke site.   "As such, no construction permits will be issued until a development agreement is reached between the City and developer to resolve the existing sanitary sewer capacity issues that currently affect the site." 

In other words, proper zoning is NOT enough, despite recent misinformation from city leaders that it is.  "The City may require public improvements to be enhanced, enlarged or upgraded," explains the subdivision ordinance regarding the University Centre site.  "Nothing contained herein shall be construed or deemed to grant a right or privilege to TKG St. Peters Shopping Center, LLC to engage in any construction activity on the property." 

When infrastructure is an issue, the development agreement confers the "right and privilege to engage in construction," not zoning. 

City leaders insist downtown Columbia is "out of infrastructure" for new development.  But the Columbia City Council has twice-approved "development agreements" guaranteeing infrastructure to Opus at taxpayer and ratepayer expense, after a $450,000 "developer contribution."   The moves reek of unfair cronyism to many observers. 

"The residents of neighborhoods like Ridgefield Road and Aldeah Avenue -- where 45 basement sewer back-ups have occurred since 2008 -- should not be expected to continue to be overcharged for sewer disservice and put up with unhealthy conditions, while the city caters to new development," said retired Columbia public works superintendent Bill Weitkemper

Weitkemper reviewed all available documents about TKG-University Centre and agreed the same infrastructure questions plaguing Opus are plaguing Stan Kroenke, just more quietly. 

"The report prepared by Steve Macintyre and approved by Pat Zenner of Columbia's Community Development, Planning and Zoning Department states it is UNKNOWN whether or not existing public storm sewers, sanitary sewer, electric, and water lines have adequate capacity to accommodate the proposed surface parking lot, OR the commercial uses which the parking lot would support," Weitkemper explained.  "The staff report states that sanitary sewer improvements will need to be addressed.   The Planning and Zoning Commission minutes state no construction permits will be issued until a development agreement is reached to resolve the existing sanitary sewer capacity issues." 

Citizens have now turned in not one, but two petitions against the Opus project, holding city leaders to their collective words about absence of infrastructure.  

Meanwhile, Stan Kroenke moves ahead without making waves, which may be a genius strategy in the current environment.   In many ways, Opus is a test case for his plans at the TKG site, which includes Office Depot, Lucky's, and surrounding properties, starting on Broadway and stretching all the way over to Custom Muffler.  

As goes Opus, so may go TKG. 

[Story originally entitled "DEJA VU," but a wise reader had a better idea.]

-- Mike Martin

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