Residents of Springfield’s University Heights neighborhood, and the development company Be Kind and Merciful, came to the April 6 City Planning and Zoning Commission meeting looking for answers. They will have to wait a while longer.
After months of controversy and postponements by the developer, the proposed rezoning of several pieces of property situated in the University Heights neighborhood near the intersection of National Avenue and Sunshine Street, dubbed “The Heights,” had its public hearing at the April 6 meeting.
Residents came out in force, many donning yellow T-shirts that displayed the words “Save Our Homes” on the back.
The Commission, composed of nine members but with one recused, ultimately voted 5-3 to postpone debate and a final vote until the April 20 meeting.
City staff recommends approval, neighborhood strongly opposes
On March 31, ahead of the scheduled public hearing for the rezoning case, which has been postponed for months by the developer, city staff recommended approval of the proposed zoning change, with conditions.
The document detailing the city’s recommendations said that because the application was filed before the adoption of the city’s Forward SGF comprehensive plan, Vision 2020, Springfield’s previous comprehensive plan, is a more appropriate framework for the BK&M property.
Nonetheless, residents came in force to oppose the proposal, filling the council chamber in Springfield’s Historic City Hall. Two of the four developers behind the company known by its acronym, BK&M, brothers Ralph and Marty Duda, were in attendance, but ultimately did not speak at the meeting. Bryan Fisher, an attorney with the law firm Neale & Newman, spoke on behalf of the company.
Both Fisher and the neighbors of University Heights made multiple references to the fact that if the Commission was to take a vote, it would not be for the rendering of The Heights that was unveiled in November.
Instead, the Commission would be voting to rezone the property from single family residential to general retail, and establish a conditional overlay district (COD) to allow The Heights to be developed for a mixture of commercial and residential uses.
Residents worry the flexibility of a COD indicates a lack of concrete plans by the developer, whereas BK&M pointed out initial renderings of The Heights were no longer entirely reflective of their intent with the property, and that the COD has been changed several times as they’ve received input from neighborhood residents.
City staff said changes made by BK&M addressed some of the concerns of neighborhood residents, and unveiled the city’s plans to add medians to part of the National and Sunshine intersection, ultimately allowing right turns only on and off of University Street (the first street north of Sunshine) and no left turns out of the development’s main driveway off of Sunshine.
Brett Foster, the city traffic engineer, suggested these road changes would benefit the already congested intersection regardless of the proposed development, and would “actually considerably improve the safety and traffic flow of National and Sunshine.”
Neighbors still came with a diverse array of concerns, including potential for higher crime rates, the impact added traffic could have on pedestrians and bicyclists and that flooding, which one resident claimed is already a problem in the neighborhood, would be exacerbated by the proposed development.
Residents said a decision should not be made by the Commission while a lawsuit filed by residents of University Heights against BK&M remains active. One speaker said they should table a vote until the City Council, which is being joined by three new council members, decides on a moratorium that would halt development and rezoning in central Springfield that was proposed by Councilmember Craig Hosmer and was referred to a committee by a 6-3 vote in January.
Initially split, Commission ultimately decides to postpone debate and vote on rezoning case
When Commissioner Bruce Colony, who dubbed himself as “pro-development” and “pro-neighborhood,” initially proposed a motion to postpone debate and a vote on the rezoning case for April 20, it failed in a 4-4 tie.
Colony argued he needed more time to digest both the city staff’s recommendation of approval and the many concerns he heard over the lengthy public hearing to make a sound decision.
Commissioners Britton Jobe, Bill Knuckles and Natalie Broekhoven all pointed out that there has been plenty of time given to have reviewed the city’s and developer’s plans, and that the Commission needed to take a vote.
“I think we need some finality on here to proceed,” said Jobe, who is also the chair of the Commission. “Whether it’s a denial or whether it’s a recommendation to approve, I think that the neighborhood and everybody involved just deserves to have this proceed without further delay.”
With the tie, the Commission was forced to consider other motions until one passed. After Knuckles unsuccessfully motioned that the proposed rezoning case be approved, Broekhoven ceded and agreed with Colony’s initial motion.
However, since his motion failed to pass, a new motion to postpone debate and a vote until April 20 was put forward, ultimately passing by a 5-3 vote.
The city informed the Commission that identical motions couldn’t be made in the same session, but Jobe, in his discretion as chair, allowed the motion to be voted on.
The Heights proposal as it stands
BK&M is seeking to put a commercial development with restaurants, shops, offices and apartments at the intersection of Sunshine Street and National Avenue, catty-cornered from the Mercy hospital campus.
The 2.6 acres of property BK&M is seeking to rezone is at 1739, 1745 and 1755 South National Avenue, 1138 East University Street and 1111, 1119, 1133 and 1141 East Sunshine Street.
In addition to the Duda brothers, former NBA players Anthony Tolliver and Brad Miller have been listed as partners in BK&M LLC. Ralph Duda and Tolliver paired up in 2012 to form Anything Possible Brands, a fishing equipment company whose brands include Kid Casters, Profishiency and Perfection Lures.
Duda explained how the elbow-shaped building for The Heights would hug the corner of National and Sunshine, with a public atrium at the point of the elbow on the corner.
The developers said multiple times that the intersection of National Avenue and Sunshine Street is the “second-busiest intersection in Springfield,” seeing about 70,000 cars on a typical day. As envisioned, The Heights would have two entrances and exits, a main driveway on Sunshine Street, and a secondary entrance and exit on University Avenue.
In a March interview with the Daily Citizen, Duda said they plan to pivot from their initial proposed site plan but, at the time, was unable to provide further detail.
“We’ve heard the neighbors,” Duda said. “They don’t want something very loud, large there. So we’re doing our best to accommodate their requests, but also protect our investment and also do something that’s positive and needed for Springfield.”
“…The Heights was an example, at the time, of what we wanted to do, and it would’ve been very profitable for us and an exciting project, but we got backlash pretty instantaneously on the look, the size. Since then, we’ve met with neighbors, we’ve had several independent meetings. And when I say neighbors, the neighbors who are peaceful, not throwing daggers at us or insulting our wives and parents.”
Duda was making reference to a neighborhood meeting that was held August 18, 2022 at Messiah Lutheran Church where BK&M first unveiled plans for the corner of National and Sunshine.
At the April 6 meeting, Fisher and Bo Hagerman, the president of BOTI Architecture, the architecture firm behind The Heights, doubled down on the accommodations Duda made reference to in the March interview.
“After having met with the community several times, they’ve changed the COD a handful of times,” Hagerman told the Commission. “I would say it’s probably been five times … there’s a very strong intent here to try to get it right, and I believe that we have.”
BK&M begins seeking out potential tenants for The Heights
On April 3, the 2.718 acres of property with the address of 1755 S. National Ave. was listed for lease or build-to-suit on the website Crexi from Gerald Zamora of Springfield-based agency Zamora Real Estate.
The listed square footage of the property is 118,396, fitting a previously proposed description of The Heights amounting to anywhere from 75,000 to 200,000 square feet.
The listing includes information that the developer, BK&M, is currently working with the city to rezone the property.
“This development is a prime opportunity for businesses seeking to have maximum exposure and to develop in a highly sought-after area,” the listing reads.
Lawsuit still active
Twelve plaintiffs, all residents of University Heights, are suing BK&M, LLC. They claim their “lots are adversely affected by any proposed change of University Heights lots from private residential zoning to multi-family and/or commercial use, zoning or conditional overlay,” according to the lawsuit.
The suit was filed Dec. 9, and assigned to Greene County Judge Michael Cordonnier. Cordonnier recently denied a motion from BK&M’s attorneys to dismiss the lawsuit. It is unclear if or how the active lawsuit will affect the Springfield Planning and Zoning Commission’s procedure.
The University Heights Preservation Group, as the plaintiffs are collectively known in legal documents, started a crowdfunding campaign to pay some legal fees associated with the lawsuit. As of Dec. 28, they’d raised $490 of their $10,000 goal.
Prior Daily Citizen coverage of the Heights
- Aug. 19, 2022: Pokin Around: Residents recoil at commercial plans that would tear down old homes on National
- Sept. 15, 2022: University Heights landmark home boarded up while residents were at meeting to discuss saving it
- Oct. 3, 2022: It’s gone. Most well-known home in University Heights demolished Tuesday morning
- Oct. 24, 2022: In a dark tent with armed security guards, University Heights residents rally to protect their neighborhood
- Nov. 8, 2022: Developers unveil new details about University Heights project at Sunshine and National
- Nov. 15, 2022: Pokin Around: Tension is part of University Heights story and shouldn’t be overlooked
- Nov. 22, 2022: University Heights prompts ask for more scrutiny of National and Sunshine
- Dec. 29, 2022: BK&M addresses 10 grievances against University Heights project
- March 31, 2023: Judge denies motion to dismiss University Heights residents’ lawsuit against BK&M
- April 1, 2023: City staff recommend zoning change approval, with conditions, for ‘The Heights’
Before BK&M bought the property
Precision Investments, run by Stephen Robert Plaster of Lebanon, Missouri, bought the property at 1755 South National, the corner property, from Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, or Freddie Mac, on Aug. 18, 2009.
In 2015, a woman named Kathy Penrod wanted to purchase the home at the corner of Sunshine and National and convert it into a hospitality house, offering low-cost overnight accommodations for people with a loved one in the hospital. Residents in the neighborhood opposed Penrod’s idea, and Springfield City Council denied her request for a conditional use permit in 2016.
Plaster’s Precision Investments continued to own the house until March 30, 2022, when BK&M, LLC bought it. The Warranty Deed for the 2022 transaction shows BK&M bought two tracts of land, Lot 12 of University Heights, and the east half of Lot 13.
The warranty deed from 2022 reads that the property is “subject to easements, restrictions, reservations and covenants of record, if any.”