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Guest Column: Columbia High School site plan is a good beginning

Guest Column: Columbia High School site plan is a good beginning

Sid Sullivan is a retired businessman who has an active interest in both the physical and community growth of Columbia. He holds a master’s degree in business administration and a Master of Arts in sociology. He can be reached at 234-2374.

Last Thursday, the Joint Columbia/Boone County Planning Commission conducted a public hearing on the Northeast Columbia Area Plan Draft. This is a proposed plan for the area around Columbia’s third high school.

The expressed intent of the NeCAP draft is to finalize the planning and send the draft with a resolution to the City Council and the County Commission for adoption. This would make NeCAP the guiding document for the development of this northeast area.

The specific expressed intent is “to avoid sprawl or leap-frogging of future development, to serve as a guide for further coordination in the future and to offer predictable outcomes for both developers and residents alike.” However, in its current form the plan to leave the area rural is too costly for city taxpayers and ratepayers. And, the general nature of the guidelines might actually contribute to sprawl and unpredictability. The respective planning commissions should accept this document as a preliminary plan, not as a draft or final draft. There is still work to be done.

I have followed the progress of the high school site selection for the past couple of years. For anyone unfamiliar with this history, it started with the announcement that the new high school would be located four miles southeast of Columbia. After a public outcry, a request went out to landowners to offer property for sale as a site for the new high school.

Cosmo Park was suggested as a shared park/high school complex and quickly rejected in favor of six other properties offered for sale. A committee was formed, and after three public meetings, it chose a site northeast of Columbia off St. Charles Road. Since that time, the architects have been working on a design, and a Joint Planning Commission has been working on a sub-area plan.

The choice of the property on St. Charles Road for the new high school provides a challenging opportunity for any planner. It’s in a rural area northeast of the city and immediately north of I-70 between the Lake of the Woods Road/St. Charles Road and Route Z exits.

Although admitting they would not have chosen this site, planners have designated a plan area of approximately four square miles around the high school site. The plan area extends north of I-70 between the two exits to Mexico Gravel Road. The rural roads make it a difficult location to reach from any direction. There are no direct major roads to Columbia. Utilities of sewer, water, gas, electric and fiber optics are inadequate for a developed area. The whole area will require substantial infrastructure investments from the city of Columbia, Boone County and the several utility companies providing service to this area.

No offense is intended to the planning commissioners who spent many hours listening to stakeholders and formulating solutions to the concerns of current residents. Their work is to be commended. The preliminary plan is impressive in its detail and creative in its solutions, but it needs more detail and work to fulfill its goal. Here are some reasons:

  • It lacks a population projection for the area.
  • It incorrectly suggests the area remain rural.
  • It fails to articulate areas for community facilities and lacks a final build-out plan for the area.
  • The land-use plan fails to integrate the high school with the community-scale park, regional shopping and branch library.
  • The plan fails to connect the northeast sub-area with Columbia
  • The plan neglects in the input of the Columbia Public School District and the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department for the placement of future elementary schools and local parks.

1. Population Projections

There is not a plan without a population projection. When none is given, planners should use their best guess. A figure between 15,000 (a small percentage of the 2 percent projected growth during the next 50 years) and 20,000 (the estimated holding capacity of the land) could easily be chosen. Without this projection, public facilities become an afterthought. Elementary schools, local parks, firehouses, a branch library and the main roads to connect people to work, commerce and public facilities will get misplaced.

2. High School in a Rural Setting?

Given a moderate pace of development, the plan area could very well remain rural for the next 10 to 15 years. But a plan to keep the area rural is preposterous. It ignores many factors, not least of which is that a high school is an urban institution. It’s a magnet for development for which the school district will very much expect to collect its share of future real estate taxes to run the school. It ignores both current infrastructure costs and future energy costs. It encourages future development to points farther beyond the city center. The Joint Commission should consider an urban outcome for its long-term expectation for this area.

3. Articulation of community facilities is needed in a final build-out plan

A final build-out plan provides the guide for developers for the placement and coordination of future infrastructure. Future development might not follow this exactly, but the guide provides a template so that future developers and planning commissioners don’t inadvertently leave out or seriously ill-position important infrastructure pieces. Imagine building a subdivision over the top of a future storm-water control area or in the right-of-way of road access to a future subdivision.

Natural watershed drainage is needed to provide storm-water controls. The plan should identify natural drainage paths as well as suitable areas for retention ponds and expandable areas, as future development will require additional storm-water controls. Because the storm-water control areas are appropriate also for the greenways, it would be remiss not to develop them in tandem with the above ground storm-water plan. If greenways are large enough and have sufficient area to accommodate playing fields for baseball, football, soccer and ponds for aquatic life as well as paths for walking and biking, the greenways create a unique community park for the area.

A similar argument can be made for other community facilities. A population projection indicates a need for three to four elementary schools with neighborhood parks, a possible middle school, a firehouse and a branch library. The reservation of sites for these facilities requires some idea of the final build-out. Failure to reserve sites will eventuate in a loss for the best sites for the various purposes. An unarticulated plan can be costly for both developers and the city. Developers could spend thousands of dollars on engineering fees for land development and unknowingly either omit or misuse the most appropriate land site for a given facility. Far from expected outcomes, the failure to provide notice of future land requirements would create the unexpected. It would lead to political outcomes as a means of protecting development costs and investments.

For the purpose of the final build out, a time horizon of 40 to 50 years should be used, and, given the population projections for this time frame, this area could support three to four elementary school size neighborhoods.

4. Integrate High School with Community Facilities

It is possible to build a community, but one has to understand how different facilities interrelate. Commercial facilities, parks and recreation facilities all play a role in the social development of students. These facilities form an organic whole and should be regarded as essential components of a community center. However, the plan is silent on the community development aspect. Students need places to socialize after school for their own social development. There is an informal social life to high school development. A bus ride to high school followed by a bus ride home after school only encourages high school drop out behavior. And, shared parking between high school and park users would conserve unpaved land if the community park were situated within walking distance of the high school.

5. Plan must connect sub-area to Columbia

Given the amount of land reserved for employment along the strip just north of the I-70, planners should request a traffic study to determine the need for an interchange at the proposed Olivet Road Overpass. The interchange can be justified if the area is developed for urban density. Upgrading the road proposed for the west side of the high school and connecting to Olivet Road to the south would achieve several objects. It would provide more direct traffic to and from the high school, and it would support employment, commercial and high school traffic. As an arterial road, a connection is formed with Columbia to the south of I-70, and Olivet could become a north-south arterial and possibly an eastern part of a circumferential road for Columbia. It would open up traffic access for employment and commercial activity as well as the high school complex. It could also open important sources for funding the infrastructure improvements needed for the area.

6. Public School and Parks and Recreation Input Needed

The Columbia Public School District and the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department should be invited and encouraged to participate with the Joint Planning Commission for an illustrative plan to flesh out any problems for these future neighborhoods with the placement elementary schools and parks. Such a tentative sketching will assist future planning commissions and developers not only in the physical growth of the city but also in the community growth of the city as well.

The professional staff should be asked to prepare a more detailed plan for the Joint Planning Commission before a final draft is submitted. To complete the planning process a long-term (20 year) capital improvement plan is needed and should be developed in tandem with the final NECAP Report. This NeCAP is fine as far as it goes but is inadequate in its current draft form. It should be regarded as a preliminary plan. If a resolution for the September 2009 Northeast Columbia Area Plan is prepared for the Boone County Commission and the Columbia City Council, it should be regarded as a preliminary plan, not a final draft.

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