BK&M principals (from left) Marty Duda, Anthony Tolliver, and Ralph Duda III, photographed on the company’s corner lot property at the intersection of South National and East Sunshine in Springfield on April 4, 2023. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

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After months of anticipation, lawsuits and neighborhood meetings, Springfield’s Planning and Zoning Commission voted 7-1 against rezoning property at the northwest corner of National Avenue and Sunshine Street.

But the fight over the fate of the zoning status for the land on the southeast corner of the University Heights neighborhood is not over, as the case heads to the Springfield City Council, which has a final say in all rezoning cases. Even if council members agree with the commission’s recommendation, some believe the properties in question will inevitably become commercial land in the years to come.

It was perhaps because of the remaining uncertainties that residents of University Heights opposed to development group Be Kind and Merciful’s (BK&M) rezoning request and proposed development showed little enthusiasm on Thursday night.

The few who attended were much quieter than the crowd of residents who showed up for the public hearing on the matter on April 6. The already half empty council chambers at Historic City Hall emptied even further when the Planning and Zoning Commission took its vote April 20.

The seven “no’s” were for a variety of different reasons

A preliminary rendering of The Heights, a development at 1755 South National Avenue in Springfield, as prepared by BOTI Architects. The illustration shows an aerial view looking south from University Street. (Photo provided by BOTI Architects)

Britton Jobe, the chair of the commission, was the only one to vote in favor of the rezoning application, with Commissioner Chris Lebeck, a resident of University Heights, having recused himself.

“I think what’s made this case so difficult is that it reflects a tension and a conflict, perhaps even with our comprehensive plan,” Jobe said. 

While the comprehensive plan the proposed development is required to follow, Vision 2020, emphasizes the need to protect neighborhoods, it also encourages the development of transitional corridors, according to Jobe.

“I believe our plan finds it desirable to encourage neighborhood scale, step down zoning to mitigate what is now a harsh transition, between single-family and institutional land use,” he said, referencing the Mercy hospital campus diagonal from the property in question.

The remaining seven commissioners voted not to recommend rezoning, with some not necessarily outright opposed to any sort of zoning change, but not for the application being discussed and not for the property BK&M seeks to redevelop. 

Springfield Planning and Zoning Commission, from left ti right: Helen Gunther, Eric Pauly, Bruce Colony, Bill Knuckles, Britton Jobe, Natalie Broekhoven, Betty Ridge, Dan Scott. (Photo by Jack McGee)

While Natalie Broekhoven, the vice chair of the commission, voted against the zoning change, she indicated an opinion that the property has the potential to create a “meaningful gateway” to surrounding commercial blocks.

“It is unfortunate that the roadways at Sunshine and National, in an effort to meet the demands of the activity centers around the neighborhood, have grown in such intensity that many of the adjacent homes have lost the same curb appeal and value that the homes inside the borders of the neighborhood maintain,” Broekhoven said. “And therefore those parcels are susceptible to a zoning change.”

Commissioner Bruce Colony was also not opposed to some sort of “activity center” on the site, but with the uncertainties of a conditional overlay district (COD), which BK&M is seeking, rather than a planned development, he was unable to support the rezoning.

“I, too, wish we could find a happy medium,” Colony said. “I do think it’s a good location for some sort of small activity center that compliments the neighborhood, but we don’t know what it’s going to be, we don’t know how big it’s going to be. The uncertainty comes at a high cost.”

Commissioner Dan Scott, in opposition to rezoning the property, spoke against BK&M’s argument that the highest and best use of the property is for the proposed development.

“I have to make the distinction, personally, that the highest and best use does not necessarily mean the highest and most profit, in this case,” Scott said. 

While Scott said he liked the renderings that were presented, which the developers later indicated were no longer reflective of their intent with the property, he was, like Colony, unable to support it due to the vagueness the COD application presents.

Scott said he fully expects, and encourages, the developer to not give up on rezoning the property, and to continue to communicate with the University Heights residents to find something that works.

“I also want to encourage the neighborhood to try to be an example for the rest of the city and  get us beyond the ‘no’ and ‘heck no’ stage, because Springfield continues to age,” Scott said. “We need to redevelop, we need to do it responsibly and gingerly, but try to find a middle ground and try to get to ‘yes.’”

BK&M’s proposal as it stands, lawsuit remains active

This empty lot was once a home on the corner of National Avenue and Sunshine Street. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

BK&M is seeks to rezone approximately 2.6 acres of property at 1739, 1745 and 1755 South National Avenue, 1138 East University Street and 1111, 1119, 1133 and 1141 East Sunshine Street from single family residential to general retail, and establish a COD to allow the corner property to be developed for a mixture of commercial and residential uses.

Ralph and Marty Duda and 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.

Previous renderings from BK&M show an elbow-shaped building dubbed “The Heights,” that would hug the corner of National and Sunshine, with a public atrium at the point of the elbow on the corner. 

However, upon hearing concern from neighborhood residents and city staff members, who later recommended approval of the rezoning request on March 31, Duda has indicated that those renderings were no longer an accurate depiction of their plans for the property.

A lawsuit filed against BK&M on Dec. 9, remains active as the rezoning case heads to City Council.

Twelve plaintiffs, all residents of University Heights, are the plaintiffs in the case 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 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 City Council’s procedure.

Jack McGee

Jack McGee is the government affairs reporter at the Springfield Daily Citizen. He previously covered politics and business for the Daily Citizen. He’s an MSU graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in journalism and a minor political science. Reach him at jmcgee@sgfcitizen.org or (417) 837-3663. More by Jack McGee