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)

Against a backdrop of opposition to proposed commercial developments in the middle of the city, Springfield Planning and Zoning Commission placed a call for help.

The commission voted 4-3 to recommend Springfield City Council study and draft a corridor plan for two key stretches of road surrounding University Heights, Sunshine Street from Campbell Avenue to National Avenue, and National Avenue from Sunshine Street to East Grand Street. The request wrapped up nearly two hours of discussion on Nov. 17, which originally started with the idea of writing a neighborhood plan for the future of the University Heights neighborhood.

Planning and Zoning Commissioner Chris Lebeck, a resident of University Heights, brought the plan request forward and made the motion resulting in the 4-3 vote. It came just days after the commission and the Springfield City Council voted to adopt Forward SGF, a comprehensive plan for Springfield’s growth and development over the next 20 years.

“We have Forward SGF that just got put into play; it’s given us a great toolkit to work from,” Lebeck said. “This will allow all of the parties involved in University Heights right now to come together and come up with an effective neighborhood plan for how this neighborhood from National to Sunshine is going to look here in the future under this framework of Forward SGF.”

Lebeck said his neighborhood plan initiative borrowed from the Rountree neighborhood, which he says was written under development pressure on National Avenue.

“There are some of us that choose to live in these older neighborhoods, and I think the fear is that these older neighborhoods — if we don’t have a proper plan in place outside of this global framework that the comprehensive plan gives us — these neighborhoods are going to erode away,” Lebeck said.

Springfield Director of Planning and Development Susan Istenes said it could take three years to put together a comprehensive neighborhood plan for University Heights. Anticipating more requests for commercial and mixed use developments, Planning and Zoning Commissioner Bruce Colony said that corridor plans would likely be needed in other parts of Springfield.

“I think maybe more than one plan is needed,” Colony said. “The neighborhoods are under siege, whether it’s University Heights or wherever it is. We’re in a redevelopment sort of era.”

Developer chapped with choice of words

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)

Developer Ralph Duda III briefly addressed the commission Nov. 17. His is the larger of two development proposals facing opposition from University Heights residents, including the University Heights Neighborhood Association.

“I just want to say I’m concerned as the applicant that has a current application pending to see the Planning and Zoning Commission choose at the request of a commissioner that lives in University Heights to begin consideration of a University Heights neighborhood plan, especially at this time,” Duda said.

Duda and Anthony Tolliver are the developers behind Be Kind and Merciful, or BK&M LLC. On Nov. 7, BK&M unveiled plans for the Heights, a multipurpose development at the northwest corner of Sunshine Street and National Avenue. They disclosed two more partners for the Springfield project, two-time NBA all-star center Brad Miller and Marty Duda, Ralph Duda’s brother.

BK&M bought properties along Sunshine Street, National Avenue and University Avenue in 2022 with the intent to rezone about 1.8 acres of land and have it rezoned from residential to commercial. The group showed preliminary design plans for a building somewhere between 75,000 and 200,000 square feet in size. The Heights plans call for five or six-story buildings, two restaurants, retail stores, offices, and 50 loft apartments on the upper levels, which residents will navigate through a series of terraces.

Some of the language commissioners used 10 days later over the course of their meeting made Duda upset.

“I hear words like, ‘erode away the neighborhood,’ ‘puttin’ in a strip mall,’ ‘onslaught,’ ‘existential threat,’ and then one commissioner comments, ‘nice work,’ ‘under siege,’” Duda said. “I’m concerned about the impartiality of the commissioners, especially the ones requesting this plan. It just doesn’t seem right.”

It isn’t about the Heights, but also it is…

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)

Commissioners Lebeck, Colony, Eric Pauley and Bill Knuckles cast the four votes to make the corridor plan recommendation to the City Council. Natalie Broekhoven, Britton Jobe and Chairman Randall Doenning made the “No” votes.

Colony told the University Heights property owners present for the meeting, “It’s not about you,” before the vote came down.

“As much as everybody wants it to be about University Heights, whatever it’s called, the Heights, it’s not,” Colony said.

University Heights may be one of the loudest neighborhoods when it comes to development proposals, but Colony said other Springfield neighborhoods are likely to need some further expansion of the guidelines found in Forward SGF.

“It’s not just this neighborhood, and it’s not just this corridor, so I think we need to get our ducks in a row to start creating neighborhood plans and corridor plans, both with our new comprehensive plan in mind,” Colony said.

Springfield Principal Planner Randall Whitman, the project manager for Forward SGF, said that corridor plans and neighborhood plans both look beyond land use.

“It would entail zoning, it would entail land use, public improvements, it would look at how the comprehensive plan makes recommendations about diverse housing, what infrastructure needs to be put in place to look at that,” Whitman said. “It looks at neighborhood preservation, it looks at the streetscape elements, it looks at neighborhood hubs.”

Attorney tips hand for upcoming arguments

More than 100 Springfield residents filled a conference room at the DoubleTree to hear a presentation on a proposed development from Be Kind and Merciful Nov. 7, 2022. (Photo by Rance Burger)

Attorney Lee Viorel said he represents 20 residents of University Heights. He said a neighborhood plan would not be effective in protecting University Heights from overzealous development, but that restrictive covenants he believes to be enforceable by law would. He hinted that covenants and deed restrictions could be part of a continuing effort by property owners to hinder BK&M’s plans.

“For 97 years — for 97 years — this has been a residential neighborhood,” Viorel said. “We don’t need to have a neighborhood plan because we know what the plan is, for 99 percent of the lot owners, it’s residential. For developers who have come in in the last six months, a very small fraction, they come in and now it has to be something different.”

Viorel told the Planning and Zoning Commission that it shouldn’t take actions that would pre-ordain zoning changes or development in University Heights, but Colony turned aside the notion that deed restrictions could come into play for the Planning and Zoning Commission.

“We’re not given any information on deed restrictions; that’s not our concern or our matter,” Colony said.

Colony initially said the Be Kind and Merciful development proposal didn’t have anything to do with the desire to create a neighborhood plan or a corridor plan, but then backtracked.

“They do have something to do with it, but we were having these conversations with respect to the comprehensive plan long before the comprehensive plan came out,” Colony said. “It’s about the corridors, it’s about the neighborhood as a whole.”

At least one commissioner worried about the agenda

Jobe said the agenda posted for the Nov. 17 meeting listed “Request To Initiate A Neighborhood Plan For University Heights Neighborhood Per City Charter,” as its final item. A corridor plan, he said, was not part of the agenda originally.

“We are voting on something that is completely different, and it affects folks, developers, residents and everybody who do not live or have property in University Heights,” Jobe said.

“We are a recommending body, and we listen to all of the evidence first, and I am not a fan of limiting the amount of evidence that we hear.”

Jobe said he would have liked to have heard a public hearing specific to a corridor plan for Sunshine and National before taking the vote on Lebeck’s proposal.

“I want to be very careful that we approach this and we approach any recommendation that we give to City Council, that we are coming at it from what is best for Springfield, and we are going to listen to neighborhoods and we are going to listen to developers,” Jobe said.

University Heights is unique, Jobe said, because it is bookended by Missouri State University to the north and Springfield’s two largest employers, CoxHealth and Mercy hospital, to the south.

“We’re not baking anything into the cake that we’re advancing here; we’re going to approach this with an open mind, and we are going to listen to all stakeholders,” Jobe said. “We’re so far removed now from what’s on the agenda, what’s been posted, that we’re moving into a different territory.”

What’s next?

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)

The Springfield City Council has its next meeting Nov. 28. The Planning and Zoning Commission meets again on Dec. 1.

BK&M withdrew its request to rezone its Sunshine and National property from the Nov. 17 meeting agenda. The future of the rezoning request is not certain.

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. The Heights would have two entrances and exits, a main driveway on Sunshine Street, and a secondary entrance and exit on University Avenue.

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