Resident Mark Fletcher, of University Heights, addresses the crowd Monday evening. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

To read this story, sign in or register with your email address. You’ll get two more free stories, plus free newsletters written by our reporting team.

You’ve read all your free stories this month. Subscribe now and unlock unlimited access to our stories, exclusive subscriber content, additional newsletters, invitations to special events, and more.

Register Subscribe

In a dark tent with armed guards, 23 people took turns Monday expressing why they believe a developer’s plans to rezone several properties from residential to commercial will destroy the neighborhood they love.

“When you start breaking down a neighborhood piece by piece, it falls apart,” said Rodney Dixon, who lives on University Street in the University Heights neighborhood.

“I have lived here close for all of my 65 years,” said Susan Welker. “… I am totally shocked that someone wants to ruin this neighborhood, quite honestly, for greed.”

Residents demanded to know the specific businesses that developer Ralph Duda III plans to bring in. They did not get what they wanted.

A site will come later if zoning is approved

Duda, president of BK&M LLC (known as Be Kind and Merciful), has said his general vision is for first-floor retail with upper stories of executive residential lofts.

City law requires that developers hold a neighborhood meeting and invite property owners within 500 feet of the site, as well as the officers of any neighborhood association.

Residents demanded to see a site plan. They will not get one until later, said attorney Bryan D. Fisher, who was there to represent Duda.

Bryan Fisher, a lawyer representing developer Ralph Duda, speaks at a neighborhood meeting. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

The process is that Duda first will go before the city’s Planning & Zoning Commission, which, along with city staff, will make a recommendation on the zoning change to the City Council, which has the final say.

‘It is a truthful response’

“A site plan is not binding in a rezoning request,” Fisher told the crowd of some 90 people.

He said Duda could attach a site plan and, if the property is rezoned, then change it. Fisher said Duda considered that an act of bad faith.

Someone in the crowd shouted: “It is a non-response!”

Fisher responded: “It is a truthful response.”

Duda is seeking what many consider a major zoning change. He apparently has spent millions in the hopes that the City Council will eventually rezone the property.

There is no assurance that will happen.

He has purchased eight properties at the northwest corner of the intersection of National Avenue and Sunshine Street. He already demolished the house at 1755.

Duda a no-show; he sends his lawyers

Duda was not at the meeting. This time he sent his attorneys: Fisher and Gunnar Johanson of the Neale and Newman law firm.

Gunnar Johanson in front of the crowd before the meeting gets started. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

Resident Rick Welker suggested to the crowd that Duda avoided the meeting intentionally because he didn’t want to face residents.

Duda and his business partner Anthony Tolliver attended the first meeting with residents on Aug. 18 at a local church.

The Springfield Daily Citizen asked Fisher why Duda was a no-show Monday, Oct. 24.

“At the last meeting, his wife was called a c**t and his father was told to the shut-the-f**k up,” Fisher said.

A resident did, in fact, say those words at the first meeting, which abruptly ended after that.

Residents says investment of a lifetime suddenly at risk

Resident Steve Waddell was one of several residents who spoke of how they had scrimped and saved to buy a home in University Heights and who now feel that long-term investment is threatened.

And just as Waddell said those words the power went out in the tent, cutting the lights and microphone.

It was dark and the rain fell hard and loud on the tent as noisy traffic backed up at one of the city’s busiest intersections.

One man tried to postpone the meeting

Earlier in the meeting, residents had complained about the location: a tent on the site of the house Duda had already demolished.

Residents gathered under this tent Monday evening. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

After Fisher had made his introductory remarks at the start, resident Mark Fletcher broke in and called for a “point of order.”

He demanded the meeting be rescheduled at a different site because it was inaccessible to those who have difficulty walking and, as a result, Duda was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In addition, others complained there was not sufficient parking and no bathrooms.

Duda told the Springfield Daily Citizen last week that he couldn’t win because residents also complained that the church site for the August meeting was too far away and had poor acoustics, making it hard for those in attendance to hear.

As Fletcher raised his voice in demanding the meeting be adjourned, two hired security guards from Task9 Security, armed with guns, took a few steps toward him.

Fisher told Fletcher the meeting was not going to be adjourned and that “Robert’s Rules of Order” did not apply.

Fletcher sat down, but later in the meeting, he referred to the two security guards as “little boys with guns.”

Before the meeting starts, one of the hired security guards stands in front of the tent’s entrance. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

One resident showed up in bulletproof vest

Resident Donald Dunbar attended in a bulletproof vest.

“Why am I wearing this ridiculous thing?” he asked those assembled.

He said it was to point out how ludicrous it was for Duda to hire armed security for a community meeting.

Jan Peterson, president of the University Heights Homeowners Association, said it was important to preserve the “historic character” of the neighborhood.

She encouraged residents to contact the city’s planning and zoning department with their concerns.

Fisher, the lawyer, said residents will soon receive an invitation to meet again, this time at the Doubletree Hotel, 2431 N. Glenstone Ave.

Steve Pokin

Steve Pokin writes the Pokin Around and The Answer Man columns for the Springfield Daily Citizen. He also writes about criminal justice issues. He can be reached at His office line is 417-837-3661. More by Steve Pokin