The ninth floor of the Tiger Hotel was the setting for a recent gathering of people interested in the process of visioning about the future of downtown Columbia and how it should be developed.
The view from the top of the Tiger is nothing short of spectacular. What is especially noticeable is how the University of Missouri skyline has filled out over the 40 years since I first looked things over during a stay at the hotel in 1966.
Right now, the Tiger is the tallest building in downtown Columbia. Some meeting participants envisioned the day when other, taller buildings might scrape the clouds downtown to fill the city’s business skyline and peer down on the old hotel. It will be interesting to see where this goes. While there are no downtown structural restrictions on height per se, the Columbia Fire Department, due to equipment limitations over the years, has strongly urged a de facto building height restriction of 10 stories.
Columbia so far has shown no tendency to become a vertical city. In fact, Columbia has spread out, some would say with abandon, as shopping complexes sprinkled with office buildings have gained their foothold on the community’s periphery. In a city already glutted with unleased office and commercial space, the last thing, some would argue, Columbia needs is a program to go more vertical downtown.
There are other concerns as well, and the example of Austin is worth considering. During the 1930s, the population of the Texas capital went from 53,120 inhabitants to 87,930 in 10 years. In 1950, the population jumped to 132,459, and in 2000 the U.S. Census Bureau counted 656,562 residents! Anyone who remembers what Austin was like in 1940 when it was about the same size Columbia is today will describe the striking changes the Texas community underwent on the way to becoming the metropolis it is today.
Today, Austin is a major metropolitan area with an impressive skyline and all the necessities of infrastructure to guide cadres of workers in and out of its modern downtown business district, including the usual expressways, mass transit systems and parking garages that are inadequate at times. Somehow, I don’t believe those envisioning what downtown Columbia will look like in, say, 50 years want it to become even fractionally what Austin has become.
Let’s say that downtown Columbia is eventually graced with a number of taller buildings 20 or even 30 stories high. Regardless of what goes into these structures — commercial, office or residential — I wonder whether we, as a community, are ready to tackle the infrastructure issues that the increased structural density will impose upon the central business district.
The roads and highways leading in and out of downtown Columbia are already stressed at certain times of the day and only becoming more so. Columbia’s stubborn reluctance to admit that Broadway must be widened and improved to a minimum of four lanes will stunt development downtown because the city desperately needs to make the urban core more accessible, from the east and especially from the west.
The ugly truth about the future viability of another principal artery — Providence Road — requires widening this major north-south street to three lanes in each direction while running the northern extension, as planned, to connect with Range Line Street.
We are beginning to see something curious and very wrong as a weak city administration allows itself to be co-opted by neighborhood groups and conned into keeping Columbia’s principal east-west corridor as it is while duping us with a so-called ped-way that, as it turns out, really doesn’t go anywhere. Somehow it doesn’t seem right because Broadway is owned and maintained by the community at large and should be modernized to benefit all of us.
Any vision for downtown Columbia must include more parking. Downtown expansion means housing hundreds, eventually thousands, of additional vehicles as well as moving them around expeditiously. As much as some of us may wish to see downtown Columbia grow and become more vertical, whatever happens is all about infrastructure. Community attitudes about infrastructural improvements tell me that is just isn’t in the cards right now.