The final parts of the white house on National are torn down on the morning of Oct. 4, 2022. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Tensions between a multimillion-dollar development group and some longtime residents of a Springfield neighborhood didn’t cool as temperatures at the corner of Sunshine Street and National Avenue dipped below zero at the end of December.

The clashes are still happening, albeit with pen and paper rather than in meeting rooms or at Historic City Hall. Property owners in University Heights are organizing in opposition to a plan to put a commercial development on the northwest corner of the busy intersection. A look through Springfield Planning and Zoning Commission documents offers a blow-by-blow report of the points of opposition developers from BK&M (Be Kind and Merciful) face.

BK&M’s proposed development, The Heights, is scheduled to go before the Springfield Planning and Zoning Commission for consideration Jan. 12, 2023. The commission will consider rezoning 2.6 acres of property from single-family residential to general retail, and establish a conditional overlay district to allow The Heights to be developed for a mixture of commercial and residential uses.

From left, BK&M developer Ralph Duda and BOTI Architects President Bo Hagerman at the DoubleTree in Springfield during the unveiling of The Heights project. (Photo by Rance Burger)

Developer Ralph Duda III and his partners requested their proposal be removed from the commission’s agenda in December. Inside more than 300 pages of documentation originally supplied to the Planning and Zoning Commission, the development group responded to a series of concerns that originally surfaced at a public meeting Oct. 24.

In a well-publicized meeting in a tent, 23 people spoke up against plans to develop the property at National and Sunshine for commercial use. BK&M has held three public meetings prior to any interaction with the Planning and Zoning Commission. In response to the tent meeting, BK&M created a point-by-point list of complaints or questions from neighboring property owners with responses from the development group. Here are 10 highlights from that list:

‘There are seven vacant storefronts in the development across the street; will this development be successful?

“Applicant will not comment on another business’ venture or model,” the developer wrote back.

The complaint likely refers to a development on the east side of National Avenue on the north side of Sunshine Street, where some retail spaces are vacant and Neighbors Mill closed a cafe and bakery in August 2022.

BK&M believes The Heights, a development with offices, storefront space and at least two restaurants, can succeed.

“Substantial time and resources have been spent analyzing the proposed project, and the developer is confident about the end success of the project,” BK&M wrote in its response.

An overlaid map shows the portions of Sunshine Street and National Avenue surrounding University Heights to the north and west. (Photo from Greene County Assessor’s Office Public GIS Viewer, illustrated by Rance Burger)

‘The neighborhood will fall apart piece by piece.

“There is no evidence that this will happen,” BK&M responded. “It has not happened to the neighborhoods adjacent to the three other corners at this intersection, nor has it in other areas of the city.”

‘Why isn’t there a site plan?

Some residents of University Heights wanted to see a detailed site plan for The Heights. BK&M shared concepts and three-dimensional renderings of what the development could look like on Nov. 7, at the DoubleTree hotel in Springfield. The preliminary plan unveiled in November included specs for a parking garage, restaurants and public art on the first level, retail shops on the second level, offices on the third level, apartments on the fourth and fifth levels and the possibility for a sixth level.

However, the renderings did not rise to the level of a detailed site plan, which is not required on an application to change the city of Springfield’s zoning map.

“A site plan is not a part of [a] rezoning application,” BK&M wrote back in its response. “Developer has released renderings and proposed site plans.”

There is also no guarantee for any potential restaurant, retail or office tenants, who would rent spaces through a third-party property manager. Duda said it is too early in the process to talk about specific tenants, but that BK&M’s team would be willing to listen to University Heights residents about what type of businesses they might like to see rent space at the Heights.

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)

‘The property belongs to University Heights.

“The property is not owned by University Heights and does not belong to it,” BK&M wrote in its response.

Stephen Robert Plaster’s Precision Investments owned the house at 1755 South National 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 in the transaction, Lot 12 of University Heights, and the east half of Lot 13.

‘We said not to tear down the house, and they did it.

That’s undisputed, but it brought out an explanation. The white colonial home that stood on the corner of National Avenue and Sunshine Street for more than 90 years was demolished Oct. 4. The developer did so upon obtaining the necessary demolition permit from the city of Springfield.

“The applicant owns the property,” BK&M wrote in its explanation. “The neighborhood does not and cannot dictate whether a structure is torn down. Moreover, the house was not habitable, dilapidated, and was broken into multiple times.”

Two employees of Rensch Construction, who asked not to be identified, sorting some of the debris during demolition. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

‘We need to do everything we can to make things as miserable as possible for the developer.

One University Heights resident went as far as to say aloud what many of their neighbors are probably thinking, and said it within earshot of someone from the development group.

“No response,” was the official reply from BK&M.

There probably won’t be too much more of a public response to that statement until a legal dispute concludes.

Twelve plaintiffs, all residents of University Heights, are suing BK&M, LLC, Frizzell Properties and two individuals who own houses on Sunshine Street near the National Avenue intersection. The plaintiffs all live on East University Street. 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 Presiding Judge Michael Cordonnier. The court issued summons for the four defendants in the case Dec. 15.

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.

‘Why can’t we do several bed and breakfast[s]?

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.

“(R)esidents vehemently opposed this several years ago, which is, in part, why the home on the corner continued to deteriorate and remained vacant for years,” BK&M wrote in its response.

Springfield Mayor Ken McClure has since gone on record and said that if he had one vote to take back and do over again in all of his time in city government, his vote against Penrod’s bed and breakfast plan would be that vote.

‘We only want single-family, nothing else.

“Single-family residential is not the highest, best, or most appropriate use of the property at issue,” BK&M wrote in its response.

At the November meeting at the DoubleTree, the developers said multiple times that the intersection of National Avenue and Sunshine Street is the “second-busiest intersection in Springfield,” with about 70,000 cars passing through on a typical day.

A preliminary rendering of The Heights, a development at 1755 South National Avenue in Springfield, as prepared by BOTI Architects. (Photo provided by BOTI Architects)

‘They could put in a Kum & Go.

Perhaps sarcastically, a University Heights resident showed their support for Kum & Go in the Kum & Go vs. Casey’s General Stores war of convenience store supremacy playing out in the Springfield metropolitan area. Nevertheless, BK&M gave a serious reply.

“The proposed (conditional overlay district) prohibits convenience stores with gas pumps,” BK&M wrote back in response.

While the developers haven’t specified exactly what businesses would go into the commercial spaces, they published a list of “Nos” in a handout that circulated among University Heights residents. The list includes pledges not to have cannabis or vape businesses, payday loan stores, massage parlors, clubs or bars, liquor stores, adult-based businesses like lingerie stores, auto repair garages and gas stations. It also pledged that any retail shops would not operate after 10 p.m.

‘Concerned about home values

The wording was a catch-all phrase for a concern repeated several times at three different public meetings involving The Heights property.

“There is no evidence that the development on the three other corners at this intersection have negatively impacted neighboring home values,” the developers wrote in their official response. “It is more likely that the project will improve home values by increasing walkability to amenities for the adjacent neighborhoods.”

The Springfield Planning and Zoning Commission next meets Jan. 12, 2023.

Rance Burger

Rance Burger covers local government for the Daily Citizen. His goal is to help people know more about what projects their government is involved in, and how their tax dollars are being spent. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia with 15 years experience in journalism. Reach him at rburger@sgfcitizen.org or by calling 417-837-3669. Twitter: @RanceBurger More by Rance Burger