Cruisin’: The Loop Looks Forward
- photos by Anthony Jinson
Business Loop 70 stands apart in Columbia. It has its own vibe; you start to notice patterns as you drive up and down the mile-and-a-half corridor. You see patterns in the mix of businesses (auto, home, services, education, décor). You see row after row of locally owned and mom-and-pop stores. You also see poorly marked streets, and a five-lane road that’s difficult to navigate. You see a road without much charm or spunk.
If you’re looking carefully, you’ve also seen change. Roads are improving, the streets are becoming a little less unsightly, and businesses are upgrading and investing in their properties.
On the eve of completing its strategic corridor improvement plan, The Loop Community Improvement District is seeing some progress. The question is: can the corridor become what stakeholders (residents, property owners, and business owners) dream it can be?
“I think they’re very excited that, finally, they organized themselves,” CID executive director Carrie Gartner says of the Loop CID board. “And I think they’re excited that there’s finally some attention being paid to the street.”
‘A Culmination of Everything’
A good deal of that attention has come from city and state projects along the Business Loop corridor — the city of Columbia completed undergrounding utility lines from Providence Road to I-70, and MoDOT constructed two roundabouts and a double roundabout interchange at I-70 that have improved the traffic flow and aesthetics of The Loop’s west end. The projects are a precursor to the CID’s corridor plan, which will focus on infrastructure, transportation, and beautification of The Loop.
Working with St. Louis based consulting firm Arcturis, the Loop board has been working on developing that corridor plan, which will be completed later this fall.
James Roark-Gruender, a Loop CID board member whose family owns Passions of Columbia, says there has been an encouraging mix of stakeholders getting involved in the corridor plan, from city officials to MoDOT to business owners and residents. Roark-Gruender is the chair of the Corridor Planning Committee.
“When this plan comes out, people are going to be absolutely amazed on the potential of the look, of the infrastructure, of what it can be,” he says. “Mind you, not everyone’s going to be happy. And I personally think if we can make everybody 50 to 60 percent happy, that’s pretty good. It shouldn’t be just one stakeholder’s vision — it should be a culmination of everything.”
The corridor plan will address two of the CID’s main goals: beautification and infrastructure. There are other areas of improvement — like marketing, economic development, and public safety — to address too. But beautification and infrastructure improvements are both what The Loop’s stakeholders are asking most for and what needs to improved before their other goals, like business recruitment, can get traction.
That corridor plan isn’t finished, but the general ideas aren’t a secret: plans will include both long-term, costly projects and short-term, less expensive projects. Among the long term projects are reclaiming unused or underutilized public space and beautifying it; making the street multi-modal friendly, with bike lanes people feel safe in as well as pedestrian and wheelchair accessible sidewalks that run contiguously; creating more accessibility from nearby neighborhoods; and creating solutions for those driving down Business Loop as well — figuring out ways to make turning into businesses more accessible. (If you’ve tried to turn left into a Loop business, you know it can be hectic navigating the center turn lane.)
For their fiscal year 2018 (which runs from October 1 to September 30), The Loop budgeted for a non-recurring $200,000 in expenditures to execute goals from the upcoming corridor plan. The funds could be used for “corridor design efforts, specific improvements, or [be] earmarked” for future use, according to a May 2017 board memo. It all depends on what priorities are set in the corridor plan.
Also in the next fiscal year, The Loop has budgeted $229,125 on beautification. In the previous year, the CID budgeted $125,000 for the corridor plan and spent $24,646 of it. They wanted to focus on clearing debt instead of implementing beautification projects without a plan in place.
The CID has held two public meetings to collect input from business owners and neighborhood residents. The plan will be something the public helped create, Gartner says. “It’s giving us a chance to have a good conversation about the structure of the street, which is fun,” she says. “That’s the fun part, right? Imagining what this street could be.”
Gartner says the corridor plan will be a 10-year plan. It will take time to raise the funds and acquire any necessary property, so the plan will outline some short-term beautification projects too, like revamping The Loop’s branding. That might include better identifying streets with improved signage or landscaping the entire corridor with native plants to make it feel cohesive.
Branding will be key to maintaining the unique aspects of the Business Loop, and it isn’t something that requires a lot of funds, Gartner says: “We have a team of people who understand the street and understand the vibe of the street. So I think they’re working really hard to give us a plan that fits with who we are, not turn us into a street that we’re not.”
Second ward Councilman Mike Trapp says he’d like to see The Loop incorporate the “pop-up trend” he’s seeing in urban planning. Using DIY methods (basically: paint, tape, and pylons), cities are temporarily changing the way certain spaces work or the way people interact with those spaces to make them more fun. For example, you turn an empty lot into a festival grounds for a weekend, or a temporary art installation.
Roark-Gruender hopes these “fun, funky projects” (and don’t forget they’re inexpensive) will get people to pay attention to the area. There are tons of ideas about what those short-term projects could be, and the consulting firm will offer some more.
“It shouldn’t be one person’s idea,” Roark-Gruender says. “It shouldn’t be what I want, it shouldn’t be what Carrie wants, it shouldn’t be what Dave Griggs wants. It should be a combination of all that so it can be what the Loop community as a whole wants and needs.”
While the CID is finalizing public plans for the street, there’s already been a surge in private business owners on The Loop updating their properties.
Property valuations have grown significantly on The Loop in the past year. Total assessed value of property grew to $13,556,619 in fiscal year 2017, a 12 percent increase over 2016, with $576,544 in new construction — a 1,857 percent increase over 2016 numbers.
Columbia overall has an average property value growth of 2 to 3 percent each year. Gartner says she anticipates growth next year, but probably not another 12 percent.
Kia of Columbia recently completed a renovation of its showroom; the Bob McCosh dealership expanded its footprint with a parking lot expansion; and The Loop lunch spot Just Jeff’s tore down its patio and outdoor kitchen and installed a new indoor kitchen in the same location. Boys and Girls Clubs of Columbia also added 14,000 square feet to their facility as part of a $2.5 million project.
“Businesses along the corridor are already willing to invest in their property, and that says that they’ve got confidence,” Gartner says. It also means that when the CID does start to enhance the public space, it will encourage those business owners who haven’t invested in their property to start making improvements to their underutilized spaces, old buildings, and vacant lots.
Roark-Gruender’s family opened the first Passions store in Boonville in 1999, and they opened the Business Loop location around 2006. The family has since doubled down on their commitment to doing business on The Loop — they purchased their building in September, so they’re there to stay. They painted the building this year and took feedback directly from a stakeholder’s meeting that the CID held to get public input for the corridor plan. One particular piece of feedback concerned the trucks sitting in parking lots with signage promoting the business. People thought they were unsightly.
“I never took a critical look at my own business to see how other people perceived [it],” Roark-Gruender says. He promptly removed his own truck and sign from the parking lot. “What I thought was an advantage was actually being perceived as negative and as a blight. It just clicked that I should take a look at my family’s own property and how it looks to the public.”
Trapp, who lives in the Parkade neighborhood immediately north of The Loop CID’s boundaries, says the increase in property values is good and will benefit surrounding neighborhoods (The Loop is in Ward 1), but his long-term concern will be supporting that growth with other investments in the area — specifically, making sure that as property values continue to rise, residents aren’t priced out.
The surrounding neighborhoods are investment areas for Columbia’s Community Land Trust to stabilize and preserve affordable housing as the Business Loop area continues to improve.
“[The Community Land Trust buys] the land, and we’ll hold it into affordable housing into perpetuity, so the rising land price won’t affect the price of those homes as they turn over,” Trapp says. “So it’s not just putting low and moderate [-income] people in affordable housing right now. When they sell the house, the home stays affordable for the next buyer. And so we preserve that subsidy and we also harness the power of rising land prices, so no matter what the other houses do, those houses will stay affordable. And they’re reasonable investments now.”
Owner-occupied programs will stabilize prices of neighborhoods, and in the future, if other homes in the area rise in value, it won’t close off access for low-income people to be able to live nearby.
Gartner says the Business Loop area is a long way from pricing residents out of the market, but it’s something to be aware of. Old buildings have to be updated and vacant lots have to be filled to grow the area, and that’s primarily what’s increasing the property values right now.
“For decades, people have just not thought about the Business Loop or have kind of looked askance at the Business Loop as sort of a run-down part of town,” Gartner says. “I think the more things we do, the more investments business and property owners make, the more that will change. People will look at this as a valuable location.”
For residents, Trapp’s other concerns are safety and walkability. Many nearby residents walk to Moser’s to do grocery shopping. The Loop is “downtown Columbia” for many Parkade residents.
“I think to be able to walk and fully enjoy the front yard experience, you need three things: you need infrastructure that allows for that, you need to be able to feel safe, and you need places to go,” Trapp says.
Overall, he says he’s impressed with the corridor improvements thus far. “The proof is in the pudding,” Trapp says. “It didn’t hurt the business environment. Property values are growing quickly, so it seems like it’s been a smart investment and I hope it will continue to pay off.”
Rolling out the corridor plan will create the to-do list, but funding the projects will take time. Gartner says the CID is waiting to investigate what kind of federal and state funds might be available depending on which projects they prioritize.
It’ll take time to present the proposed improvements to the City and MoDOT (the Business Loop is a MoDOT road), to get in the queue with both entities to get work scheduled, and partner to pay for the projects.
“No project is going to be funded by one entity,” Gartner says. “That’s why it’s a 10-year [corridor] plan. You go out further in the distance, you get on everybody’s radar, you get into their planning process.”
The CID would fund the “icing on the cake” projects, Gartner says, like signage, landscaping roundabouts, and so forth.
In 2018, the CID’s estimated revenues will come from property assessment ($54,644); from MU, because of Mizzou North’s presence on The Loop ($5,000); and from sales tax revenue from a half-cent sales tax increase passed in April 2016 ($313,501).
That figure doesn’t include any sales tax revenue from auto sales, which comprise a large chunk of Loop businesses — in Missouri, vehicles are taxed where the buyer lives, not where the vehicle is purchased.
Until this year, The Loop had been referencing 2012 sales tax numbers. Gartner says 2017’s sales tax revenue is 50 percent more than she expected. “That means we have more money to pour back into the street,” she says.
Around 2012, the city estimated sales tax based on business license data to be $225,570. It’s hard to say exactly where that number is now; the true test of growth will come a year from now, when the Fiscal Year 2018 numbers are reported. Gartner anticipates that those sales tax revenues will hold steady. In the future, as vacancies decrease, she’ll expect to see sales tax numbers grow.
Those sales tax figures also speak to the nature of Loop businesses, which Gartner calls “internet-resistant.” It’s also another reason to build on the already successful niches of home improvement, décor, and auto services.
“If you’re buying carpet or you’re buying flooring, or tile, or paint, you don’t do that online,” Gartner says. “The shipping costs alone would just kill you. These are all things that you really need to look at and touch and feel.”
Yes, all brick-and-mortar businesses are hurting, and corporate giants like Walmart and Target are adjusting to stay competitive. But you won’t find much of anything corporate on Business Loop. Many of the Loop businesses are locally owned. It makes sense to continue to invest in an area with a stable sales tax in an otherwise declining retail sector, Trapp says.
“That equates to a lot of revenue generated and a lot of money being spent on The Loop, [an area] that a lot of people had written off as not worthy of attention, that it was dead and gone,” Roark-Gruender says. “That’s just not the case, and the numbers prove that.”
Corridor planning is the priority, but after that comes recruitment: finding businesses that fit the DIY niche, the education niche, or fill in the gaps of needed industry on the Loop. With more business comes more need for lunch options and happy hour options. It’s about creating a space that feels distinct and plays to its advantages.
One member described Business Loop as “a working man’s street,” Gartner says, which seems to have stuck. And it makes sense. Nineteen percent of businesses on the street are services, 14 percent are auto, 5 percent home improvement, and 18 percent general retail.
“We’re working to promote businesses, specifically to get people to think of The Loop as a coherent set of businesses, which I don’t think happened before,” Gartner says. “But honestly, until we have more development and build out these empty lots, we won’t have the inventory to do serious recruitment.”
Media attention has fluctuated — sometimes chaotically — since the CID was created in 2014 amid a contentious public debate about the process used to draw The Loop’s official borders. Roark-Gruender says, good or bad, the media attention has made people curious about what’s actually on the Business Loop — and that’s good for business. The corridor planning process has created an opportunity for nearby residents and business owners to speak out and work together to figure out what improvements are needed.
“No one said that the Business Loop should not be improved,” Gartner says. “No matter where you came down [on the CID formation], everyone was in absolute agreement that this street needed to be beautified.”
As the corridor plan rolls out, there shouldn’t be any surprises: infrastructure improvements, beautification, and little, funky projects to showcase the area’s quirks. Perhaps the surprise is that, after a rocky start, stakeholders are sharing ideas, properties are being updated, and an area that has been neglected is getting much needed attention. Even in its infancy, the Loop CID is improving the area.
“All the chaos surrounding it in the beginning does not represent what it is and the potential it has,” Roark-Gruender says of the CID. “We have to get past that first initial hump . . . and actually look at the potential and what it can do and what it can accomplish.”
Planning and development for an area like the Business Loop is different from that of a place like downtown Columbia. Loop CID executive director Carrie Gartner (who was also executive director of The District CID) related the differences to those of two other familiar Columbia spots.
“Downtown is like Stephens Lake Park. You put enough amenities in one spot and you provide enough parking and everyone’s going to just go there and hang out. But a corridor is like the MKT Trail — there’s amenities along it, but really it’s a way to get from one place to another.”
A corridor becomes successful when you increase the connections to the local neighborhoods and to the other retail areas in town. The CID’s goal is to make the Business Loop more of a destination than a way to get from one place to another.