It was already a confrontational meeting Thursday when a woman said a very bad word in the sacred space within Messiah Lutheran Church on Seminole Street.
It was directed at Sarah Duda, a former family physician and wife of a developer who works at a company called, of all things, Be Kind and Merciful, BK&M.
The word was not only an affront, but rhymes with it too.
The utterance seemed as good a time as any for her husband, Ralph Duda III with BK&M, to drop the curtain on the meeting.
Duda and partner Anthony Tolliver were presenting their very general plans for a commercial development in the University Heights Neighborhood — and in doing so, potentially tear down a few beautiful old houses.
I spoke to Duda Friday and he filled in a few details for me.
An unkind word for his father, too
After the insult, his father, a Springfield endocrinologist, told the woman in the audience that she owed his daughter-in-law an apology.
“She told my dad to (expletive)-off,” Duda says.
“This is done,” Duda says he thought. “I did not feel like continuing any dialog. We went in being dead-on-arrival. I do not feel like we were being heard.
“We are not going to work with people who are obscene, insulting and derogatory,” he tells me.
Nevertheless, Duda says, he will try to communicate with other members of the University Heights Neighborhood Association.
An apology from association president
Jan Peterson, president of the association, apologized to him.
“Last night’s incivility was absolutely unacceptable,” she wrote. “It in no way represents the attitude of our neighborhood association and the overwhelming majority of its more than 200 members. I hope the outburst hasn’t irreparably damaged discussions moving forward.”
Duda and business partner Tolliver, 2003 Kickapoo grad and former NBA player, hosted the meeting at the church to get feedback on a plan to commercialize five parcels they have bought, including four houses, at the northwest corner of Sunshine and National.
It’s one of the city’s busiest intersections.
And boy did they get feedback.
The meeting started at 4 p.m. and by the time I got there at 5:40 there were 80 people in attendance. I don’t know how many had already come and gone.
“Based on everything that I have heard here tonight, my impression is you don’t give somebody — especially the developer — a blank check,” Don Dunbar, who lives in the neighborhood, said to the group.
“What we need to do as a neighborhood is stop the rezoning at all costs. If that means we retain an attorney to do this, then we do it. That would be less than the loss to the value of our homes.”
Even more surprises for residents
The parcels are at:
1755 S. National Ave., which hugs the intersection and has been the subject of numerous news stories over the years, including some by me.
And the two houses to the north — 1745 S. National Ave. and 1739 S. National Ave. — as well as one around the corner at 1138 E. University St.
In addition, the company bought a vacant parcel to the west of 1755 S. National Ave.
I checked property records and four of the five were bought on either March 30 or March 31.
The house on University has a different owner listed. I asked Duda about that and he said it was “under contract.”
If the development itself wasn’t surprise enough, the developers told those at the meeting that two of the houses on National are no longer being used as traditional homes.
They said the house at 1745 S. National is a residence for 10 men in recovery from alcohol and drug addictions.
After the meeting, I went to the address to confirm that and was met by a man who identified himself as Adam Charles. He said yes, it was being used as a recovery residence, and told me to get off the property, which I did.
In addition, the developers said the house at 1739 S. National Ave. is an Airbnb. On Friday I found it on Airbnb and, let me say, judging from the photos, it’s beautiful inside.
Renters say house is beautiful inside
I also spoke to a young man and a young woman who told me that since July they have been renting the house at 1755 S. National, the one closest to Sunshine. They tell me they signed a one-year lease and they love the house.
They declined to give me their names. She said she is a student at MSU, and he said he is a graduate of Missouri University of Science & Technology in Rolla.
“It is beautiful on the inside,” she tells me.
“The house is perfectly fine,” he says. “It would be a shame to see it go.”
Residents clearly don’t want commercial
At the meeting, I talked to Tolliver.
“Our goal is that we want to hear people. We want to listen. We want to get their feedback and take it to our architects and engineers.”
At this point, the developers say, a general starting-point plan is that if the 1.8-acre combined property is rezoned from residential to commercial, they will knock down the houses and put in two-story buildings with retail on the first floor and a loft on the second.
But residents made it clear they simply don’t want commercial.
They fear that if commercial development establishes a beachhead the houses will fall like dominoes, and they would soon be living next to a 24/7 service station.
The incessant traffic flow is a big reason why the house on the corner has not sold in years.
In 2016, a woman sought to turn it into Grandpa’s Hospitality House, offering low-cost overnight accommodations for people with a loved one in Mercy Hospital, across the busy street.
Some neighbors opposed the idea; the city rejected the request for a conditional use permit.
Councilman says it’s too early to comment
This dispute falls within Councilman Matt Simpson’s Zone 4. He tells me the first he heard of the controversy was Thursday.
“I will be watching as it goes through staff review and through planning and zoning,” he tells me.
Ultimately, the City Council will have final say.
Until the council discusses the matter, he says, there are legal and ethical considerations that lead him to the conclusion it is best for him to not talk publicly about the proposed zoning change.
There can be a lot of money involved in zoning changes. A piece of property can become far more valuable if rezoned from residential to commercial.
I ask Duda what happens if he doesn’t get the zoning change that he seems to be counting on.
He tells me that this intersection clearly is commercial in everything but name only.
“This spot will go commercial someday — 70,000 cars go by it in a day. I am in no rush.”
This is Pokin Around column No. 56.