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EEZ creates unease over city’s growth

EEZ creates unease over city’s growth

Blight … enhanced enterprise zones … 50 percent property tax abatement … eminent domain … Susette Kelo — all of these have been swirling around Columbia and stirring up our latest fiery controversy.

This comes after talk of designating more than half of the city as a so-called “enhanced enterprise zone” (EEZ) qualifying the development of territories within its ranging boundary for a 50 percent property tax abatement. Some of us are really fired up because it could involve the city’s power of eminent domain.

Mark down Columbia as an example of yet another small town that grew too fast and was ill-planned and poorly prepared to deal with its rapid growth. There’s much to criticize amidst this population surge — from the already strained grid work of streets and other infrastructure issues to the reborn downtown business district already strained by its ongoing renaissance.

Question of blight

Now comes the proposed EEZ with the determination that certain areas considered to be “blighted” would qualify for tax abatement that could be used to offset expenses incurred for development. The term “blight” can be whatever your judgmental imagination thinks it is. The designation of an area as “blighted” is feared because it might eventually allow the municipality to use its power of eminent domain to override the ownership and usage interests of private property owners.

One has to be of a certain age to understand the impact of such activities in the past. “Urban renewal” was a term once in vogue, and a great deal of money — both private and public, tax abatement notwithstanding — was invoked for the cause.

While some areas of Columbia today might be termed ugly, blighted and unkempt, depending on your point of view, nothing extant comes anywhere close to approaching various blights of the past.

Photos remind us of the abject squalor on display for both residents and visitors as they passed rows of ill-equipped hovels — typically without certain essential utilities — that once lined Providence Road. More recently, there was the assemblage of industrial structures that abutted South Providence Road and the former MKT railroad yard south of Broadway until the Flat Branch Park area was redeveloped a few years ago.

Eminent domain

In the wake of the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. City of New London, Conn., testiness has surged about the right of governmental entities to invoke their power of eminent domain to seize property for one sort of “improvement” or another. While city officials boldly proclaim they will never resort to using eminent domain within the proposed EEZ, perhaps there are good reasons to keep this powder dry just in case.

Of course, there’s a preference to use the process of orderly negotiation and arbitration with private property owners to achieve whatever the overall goals may be. Yet there are opportunities lost from time to time as one observes ongoing refurbishments around the area ranging from streets to structures.

One opportunity that appears to have been lost involves the ambitious private-public development project downtown that’s about to get under way on Short Street. A private developer is demolishing what began more than 45 years ago as the Downtowner Motor Inn with plans to replace it with a Doubletree Hotel later this year. The city, given certain height and space restrictions, is squeezing in another parking garage that we’re told is already virtually sold out and apparently will have no room for expansion.

Short Street parking garage

This brings us to two unrelated, privately-owned parcels of land at the northeast corner of Short Street and East Broadway. A Methodist — later, Christian — church occupied part of this corner from the turn of the last century, and the tracts are now occupied by two restaurants.

Would an expanded downtown parking garage that extended south to Broadway along the entire east side of Short Street be more in the public interest, in terms of convenience and necessity, than preserving the building that’s already there? Perhaps.

Maybe this has already been considered and rejected because the owner of the corner does not want to sell the property flat out at any price. This is the owner’s prerogative of course, and we should respect that. Everyone has their price, however. But would appraisal, negotiation and arbitration lead to invoking eminent domain? Maybe City Hall insiders would really like to build a larger garage, but they’re so terrified about how the community would react if they were forced to use eminent domain that they simply won’t consider it.

This squeamishness is unfortunate because there appears to be a growing need for more parking on the east side of downtown Columbia. The proposed Short Street garage should be bigger. The growing shortage of parking could eventually put the brakes on development of an area most of us are pretty excited about.

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