West-central Columbians unite to protect their neighborhood

Tuesday , February 13, 2018 - 3:56 PM

Madison Czopek

One of the first things drivers might see when they turn onto Anderson Avenue from Broadway is a 25 mph speed limit sign with a bright yellow border. There’s a warning for drivers in all caps: “kid friendly.”

A small group of residents paid for the sign in the hopes of calming traffic on the street that only seems to be getting busier. Farther down the road, there’s a decorated little library that invites people of all ages to take or leave a book.

Anderson Avenue is lined on both sides with single-family homes, most of which were built in 1930 or earlier and are smaller than 1,500 square feet. Many have been fixed up, but they still retain charming features such as brick exteriors and covered porches. Anderson Avenue is representative of the rest of the West Ash neighborhood.

“A lot of the houses are these small kind of bungalows, and they’re good for starter families,” neighborhood resident Suzanne Radcliffe, 41, said. She has lived in the area with her husband, Chris Radcliffe, 40, for about 10 years.

“It’s one of the things that we enjoy because we can hang out in our yard or on our porch, and there’s always people walking by with their kids and pets and whatnot,” Radcliffe said. “It’s kind of ideal.”

Just around the corner, about a block west of Garth Avenue, four duplexes were built, each larger than 3,500 square feet. Constructed along Ash Street in 2015 by Williams Crossing LLC, each duplex has eight bedrooms, eight full bathrooms and two half-baths.

Members of the West Ash Neighborhood Association became worried that development might encroach on their neighborh ood next and decided to do something about it.

Proactively preventing development

A group of 38 property owners hope that by asking the Columbia City Council to downzone their parcels they can deter developers from building larger duplexes and apartment buildings in their neighborhood. Downzoning originally was recommended in the 2015 West Central Columbia Neighborhood Action Plan, but the residents began the process last winter.

“Recently, I mean, we’ve seen huge pressures” for development, resident Christine Gardener, 69, said. “Somehow, everything has speeded up.” Gardener has lived in her home on Anderson Avenue for almost 35 years.

Gardener, who filed the request on behalf of the group, is one of 34 property owners in the First Ward who asked the city downzone her property from R-2 to R-1 classification. Residential land classified as R-2 allows for two-family dwellings such as duplexes. An R-1 classification would restrict properties to one-family dwellings only.

Protecting community through downzoning

The group also included three requests to downzone parcels from R-MF, or multiple-family dwelling, to R-1, and one request to downzone a parcel from R-MF to R-2.

Tory Kassabaum, 28, said she and her husband chose their house along Anderson Avenue, in part, because of the small family homes in the neighborhood and its location on a safe street. She said the new developments she sees often are bigger homes made with cheaper materials, rather than the old architecture she values. The Kassabaums requested their property be downzoned from R-2 to R-1.

“I would just hope that (downzoning) would preserve the integrity of the buildings and the community in the First Ward,” Kassabaum said.

Preserving diversity, community and architecture

Throughout the years, Gardener raised two children in her small three-bedroom, one-bathroom home. She said she loved the diversity she saw in her neighborhood while hosting yard sales and interacting with her neighbors.

“This is a very walkable (neighborhood). People walk by,” Gardener said. “I put plants out for sale every now and then, or free stuff, or have a yard sale or a fundraiser in my yard, and I have the bench out there for people to sit on if they would like to because we need more community.”

She saw “a mix of moderate- to low-income” families and people from various racial and ethnic groups. She hopes to keep the diversity by “saving the chara cter of the neighborhood.”

Homeowners feared large developments would bring in short-term renters or students who might not value the traditional neighborhood community as much as current residents. Radcliffe said that many families are just starting out in the neighborhood, but that some adults have lived there, raised kids and spent most of their adult lives in the West Ash community.

“It’s a fabulous mix of people who just like to socialize,” Radcliffe said. “They’re usually out puttering about in their yards. It’s just kind of a feeling that I don’t think you always get with a lot of people who are renting.”

West Ash neighborhood residents also wanted to protect the beauty of the old architecture and the small, family character of the homes by downzoning their properties.

“The First Ward, in general, has small square-footage homes that are just beautiful. We live in an old brick bungalow. It was built in the ‘30s, and the architecture is the same around us,” Kassabaum said. “It’s just a nice, small family neighborhood.”

Learning from the past

The city has approved similar blanket downzoning requests in the past. In January 2017, 35 parcels in Benton-Stephens neighborhood were downzoned to slow potential redevelopment.

The West Ash Neighborhood Association followed the Benton-Stephens neighborhood model and made the request as a large group. Gardener said they opened the invitation to anyone who wanted to downzone — even those outside the neighborhood — because requesting as a group spread the $125 cost of making the request and made it easier for those who wanted to avoid the hassle to still request downzoning.

“I definitely think it helps having numbers on your side,” Radcliffe said. “I think it has a little bit more weight to it when you have more people wanting to rezone their properties. It makes a bigger statement.”

Radcliffe also said that although not every homeowner on her street has requested downzoning, she has heard that even one property zoned R-1 in the neighborhood could “discourage” developers.

Gardener said she doesn’t think every home on every street needs to downzone for it to be a potential solution, and she hopes the West Ash neighborhood’s downzoning request will motivate others.

“We’ve already had some people come forward and say: ‘Hey, we’d like to do this,’ and we can help them next time,” Gardener said. “In the meantime, it’s building community. We’re meeting new neighbors and talking to each other. That’s a really good thing.”

The next steps

The Planning and Zoning Commission will discuss the downzoning request at a public information meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. Clint Smith, senior planner in the community development department and case manager for the request, said that “based on a tentative schedule” the commission’s public hearing on the request would be March 8, the first reading to the City Council would be April 2, and the final council vote would be on April 16.

First Ward Councilman Clyde Ruffin said he is excited about potential downzoning and thought it would be good for the neighborhood. He said he thought it was important for the council to consider property owners’ wishes.

“If downzoning will ensure that they will be able to maintain that sense of community in their neighborhood and the integrity of the architecture and many things that are important to them, then I think that we should take that into consideration, first and foremost,” Ruffin said.

Ruffin said a lot of development has happened in the First Ward in ways that have changed the character of the community. He said that while he wants development to continue where it enhances the ward, increased student housing in residential districts, for example, may not improve the lives of the people who already live there, whose homes might be their greatest investment.

“I want to do whatever I can to protect them and protect their investment,” Ruffin said.

Gardener hopes the downzonings will be approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission and the City Council.

“I don’t think there would be any reason why they wouldn’t (approve it), as long as we have our documentation.”

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