BK&M LLC suffered a setback at last night’s meeting of the city of Springfield’s Planning & Zoning Commission, with members voting 7-1 against recommending the rezoning proposal to Springfield City Council.
Though some members indicated the writing is on the wall for eventual development at the northwest corner of Sunshine Street and National Avenue, many pointed to the vagueness of the developer’s plan as the basis of their vote.
The developer was scheduled to appear before P&Z as far back as Dec. 15 but requested multiple extensions since then. BK&M’s proposal is for a change from single-family residential to general retail with a conditional overlay destrict restricting some of its uses. Notably, the COD disallows drive-thrus, package liquor sales, bars or gas stations. Beyond these and other restrictions, specific plans for the site were unclear to commissioners. P&Z Chair Britton Jobe offered the lone vote in favor of the zoning change, and Commissioner Chris Lebeck was absent.
P&Z member Dan Scott said he was uncomfortable with the vagueness of the proposal.
“To me, the highest and best use is not just to throw open the barn doors,” he said.
Scott, an architect who called himself one of the most pro-development members of the commission, said he had an appreciation for the original renderings presented for the project and would have supported them with some changes.
While original plans presented by BK&M in November called for an up to six-story development to wrap around the corner of Sunshine and National, developer Ralph Duda has since suggested a mixed-use residential and commercial development would be two or three stories with the possibility of a single tenant. He agreed to, in his application, limitations on operating hours in addition to types of tenants. Some P&Z members, however, felt the plan lacked enough specifics to evaluate.
P&Z member Natalie Broekhoven said she believes the property can be successfully rezoned in alignment with the city’s Vision 20/20 comprehensive plan, which was in place when the development was proposed, though City Council has since approved Forward SGF as its new comprehensive plan.
“I would not choose to rezone at such an intensity as this application with nothing more than a speculative idea of what could be the highest and best use next door to a crown jewel center city neighborhood,” she said.
Member Helen Gunther said there was no way she could vote to recommend the project because it includes not only Sunshine and National properties, but also a lot with a University Street address, 1138 E. University St. She said she could envision trash and delivery trucks using the neighborhood roadway.
“I think we’re encroaching too much on that community with this development,” she said.
Betty Ridge, another member, acknowledged that things change, and the site in question is a good example.
“The question is not just can we but should we, and in this case, I feel we should not,” she said. “I do think the developers have a very interesting concept; I just wish they had planned to put it somewhere else.”
Member Bruce Colony added he thinks the site is a good location for a small activity center that complements the neighborhood.
“We don’t know what it’s going to be, how big it’s going to be; it’s not a planned development anymore,” he said. “The uncertainty comes at a high cost, so therefore I can’t get behind it.”
Colony added that he does not believe the project fits with the guiding principles in Vision 20/20 for an activity center, and the neighborhood is not on board.
“There’s plenty of areas in this town that need to be redeveloped; I don’t think this is one of them,” he said.
Member Eric Pauly said the people who put together Vision 20/20 stressed the importance of neighborhoods exhibiting a sense of identity, and they might have been thinking about a mature neighborhood like University Heights, which he said has had a strong sense of identity since long before anyone in the room was born.
Pauly said by denying the request, the commission would be supporting neighborhoods in keeping with the Vision 20/20 plan.
Like some other members, Carl Knuckles said he also sees a future for the site that includes commercial use, but he agreed the BK&M proposal is vague. The final product shows the developer is looking to accommodate tenants and develop the site accordingly, and this meant “If it were more definitive, I would probably be voting for this zoning change,” he said.
Concluding the initial discussion was Jobe, who offered his support for the development, but said the case reflected a tension and a conflict, perhaps even with the comprehensive plan.
“So, we have a conflict because we have these two arterial roadways that frame, as other commissioners have noted, a single-family residential neighborhood, which the comprehensive plan reminds us to preserve,” he said.
The comprehensive plan also encourages the development of transitional corridors and land uses that would mitigate the effects of adjacency of low-intensity and high-intensity land uses.
Jobe said he believed the conditional overlay district addresses the potential incompatibility of adjacent areas by encouraging neighborhood-level mixed-use and aesthetic compatibility.
“For that reason, my vote will be in the affirmative,” he said.
Colony responded to Jobe by noting P&Z is supposed to protect neighborhoods.
“Just because a neighborhood happens to have had two primary arterials develop around it doesn’t mean it should be plowed under for commercial use,” he said.
Some commissioners stressed that University Heights and BK&M should work together.
“I want to encourage the neighborhood to be an example for the rest of the city and get us beyond the ‘no’ and ‘heck no’ stage,” Scott said. “Springfield continues to age. We need to redevelop, and we need to do it responsibly and gingerly, but try to find a middle ground and try to get to yes if you can at all.”
The congregation at Crossway Baptist Church is building a children’s wing at the west end of the church, and beginning in 2024, it will be home to a Christian academy.