University Heights contentious rezoning issue goes in front of Planning and Zoning Commission this week with city staff approval

Published: Apr. 3, 2023 at 7:05 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - The controversial University Heights development plan is moving forward again. On Thursday (April 6), the Springfield Planning and Zoning Commission will take up the proposal to rezone the property at the corner of National and Sunshine to allow commercial development there.

It’s a change that many of the residents in that area oppose, and several of them have even filed a lawsuit to keep the venture from happening.

“I’ve often said that University Heights reminds me of Mayberry,” said Donna Farr Hemann, the President of the University Heights Neighborhood Association. “It’s that small town feel with clean, beautiful properties that have this ambiance of yesteryear. And for someone like me who grew up watching Andy Griffith, it’s comforting to know that we still have a place like University Heights that’s like that.”

But Hemann and others in the University Heights neighborhood are concerned that their historic district that dates back to 1925 will lose its peaceful feel if 2.6 acres at the corner of National and Sunshine is rezoned for retail and mixed-use space.

And one of the things they thought they could initially count on is no longer valid.

In December, the city’s planning staff released a report detailing their concerns about the rezoning, saying they would not be recommending the project as it was presented at the time. But now, just days before presenting the proposal to the Planning and Zoning Commission, the city staff has issued a new report that says the developers have come up with enough changes to warrant their support.

As expected, the neighborhood association was not pleased with that about-face.

“I think some folks are very out of touch with the issue and only see things on paper,” Hemann said. “They’re not boots on the ground. They’re completely disconnected, and I think they faced outside pressure. I’m sad for the city that things operate that way.”

In a phone interview Ralph Duda, one of the leaders of the project’s developer, BK&M, said that his group made a major concession in agreeing not to allow any establishments with drive-thru or pick-up windows as well as no liquor stores, vape shops, or adult novelty businesses. And no business would be open past 11 p.m.

Duda also said he understands the University Heights neighbors who want to protect the area’s integrity and wants to work together to address their concerns which is why the proposed development would have the same style-architecture as the neighborhood homes. He pointed out that the other three buildings at that intersection (Mercy Hospital, a new CoxHealth clinic, and a strip mall) did not have architecture similar to the homes in the neighborhood and that he is hoping to work together with the opposing side so “they will meet us halfway.”

Duda explained that although the final plans are obviously not done yet, he now sees the building only having one or two tenants in a 2-3 stories high structure. That’s much lower than the height allowed (7 stories) and another concession to residents who were upset over the possibility that the structure would tower over homes in the area and affect privacy.

Traffic has been another cause of scrutiny as the proposed building would sit at the northwest corner of the second busiest intersection in town (National and Sunshine). Duda said there would be an entry-and-exit driveway on Sunshine and another entry-exit on University street.

“That street (University) is the anchor street of University Heights,” Hemann said. “So the development as it is proposed would be an immediate devaluation to not only the property values of homes along that street but there’s also a domino effect. It would open the door for investors to go up and down the rest of our bordering streets, buy more homes, and develop them. So property devaluation and major, major quality of life issues are involved if something like this were to be built.”

One important factor to remember is that regardless of the recommendations of the city staff or the Planning and Zoning Commission, the City Council will ultimately determine the outcome of this contentious matter as they will take the final vote.

But that final vote may not be the final decision. The lawsuit against the developers is still proceeding after a judge’s recent decision that residents had a right to file it, and Hemann left the door open to putting the matter to a vote of the general public, much like the Galloway neighborhood did in defeating an apartment complex rezoning attempt next to Sequiota Park.

“It’s a surprisingly complex matter,” she said. “There’s all different kinds of things that could happen, including the possibility that investors could start all over again with a different proposal.”

When asked if there was any kind of development on that corner that neighborhood residents would welcome?

“Well, there are differing opinions on that,” Hemann answered. “To put it in the words of some of our residents, it would have to be something that wouldn’t tower over our homes and something residents could actually walk to, like a nice restaurant. We have a fairly large neighborhood, so there’s going to be a concern no matter what is built. But something that fits into the neighborhood as far as what it is and how it looks would be more palatable.”

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