by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist
After years of planning, fund-raising and hard work, the Covenant Community Development Corp. has put forward a plan to redevelop a plot of land at the intersection of Sexton Road and Garth Avenue, right in the heart of one of the most economically depressed areas of the city. To assist the redevelopment, the Covenant Corp. went before the Columbia City Council to seek a change in zoning and a number of zoning accommodations, including variances in the number of parking spaces required and in the yard and parking lot setbacks.
But the city council has delayed the project from moving forward in what seems to be a classic case of the perfect getting in the way of the good.
The Covenant project would bring local economic development to an area of the city that has double-digit unemployment, high dropout rates and high crime. This area of town is an abnormality in Columbia, a city that continually boasts of its good economic indicators and high national rankings as one of the best places to live and work in the United States.
This area didn’t become poor and largely black by chance. From its founding until the 1960s, Columbia was a segregated town. Throughout that time, Columbia’s black community had little or no means of escaping poverty; access to higher education and higher paying jobs were blocked by those in power.
Despite the obstacles, a collection of successful businesses grew in the area known as Sharp End, stretching from around the current post office over to Garth Avenue, providing some local economic activity. However, in the 1950s the city decided to undertake several projects to “redevelop” the area. As far as I can tell, the main outcome of this redevelopment was a city-sponsored transfer of real estate from black property owners to white property owners and the destruction of most of the black-owned businesses.
Like the rest of the city, this area needs an economic engine to succeed. Right now, local jobs are scarce. For those who don’t own a car, the local options for purchasing groceries and other staples are limited. Think of how it would help our entire city if this area of town were a thriving economic center.
Increasing the economic performance of this area will help all of Columbia.
The argument has been put forward by Tribune Publisher Hank Waters and others that no special considerations should be made for the Covenant development just because it “touts high-sounding purposes about serving the neighborhood.”
I strongly disagree.
First, we should encourage development in economically depressed areas of the city. To close one’s eyes to Columbia’s history and declare the free market will eventually work its wonders does a disservice to the people who live in an area of the city that has been purposefully kept in poverty for most of its history.
The free market has done a great job of turning Boone County farmland into cookie-cutter housing and “big box” stores during the past 30 years, but it has done little to promote redevelopment in the historically poor areas of town.
The free market tends to be risk-averse, which is why bricks-and-mortar investments are made in areas of the city in which success is a sure bet. Development in poor areas is a risky business and not something the free market will do, at least not until all the farmland is gone. Those brave enough to take on such projects should be given as much accommodation as possible. Our city council seems happy to approve special accommodations such as TDDs for developers in other parts of the city, so why not allow some accommodations for this developer?
If anything, the Covenant project highlights the fact that we need a better process to facilitate Columbia’s redevelopment efforts. Besides approving and encouraging the Covenant project, the city council should seriously look at how it can ease zoning restrictions in the economically depressed areas of the city so new entrepreneurs can put out their shingles as quickly and easily as possible. Other cities have been successful in establishing economic development zones, where special incentives and less restrictive regulations are applied to prime the local economy and encourage development. Such zones of redevelopment could be successful here and should be accommodated.