Decatur Issues

Another week, another request for rezoning at Ash Avenue in Decatur.  This time the planning commission rejected the rezoning request to build an insurance office on the corner of Ash Avenue.  The city indicated that they are interested in planned development for the area, which on one hand I’m very pleased to hear but on the other, I’m concerned that the public won’t know what those plans are or be instrumental in developing them.

I’ve written several times about this issue because this particular area of the city is constantly in the crosshairs of commercial development.  The area is primarily residential today, though Mound Plaza and the Walmart shopping area, has entered the picture over the past 20 years or so.  Finding the right balance in the area is going to require a strong commitment to preserving the character of the neighborhoods.

ash west

Neighborhood on the west and part of the property requesting rezoning

I’m always concerned that the persuasive power of big business and the lure of tax revenue will cause the council to lose focus.  So I hope that planned development will help but I’d like to see the plans.  What is the vision?  I’d also like the opportunity to be involved with the planning.

ash avenue east

Southeast corner of Ash Ave

What District 61 did for the high schools a few years ago is a great template to use.  That was something I participated in and it was a transparent process.  The public was extremely instrumental in choosing the renovation plan the school district put forth.  The blueprints were literally rolled out on tables for all to see and comment on.  It was a bottom up approach to governing that worked very well.  I’m encouraging the city to do the same, not just for Ash Avenue, but for many other parts of the city as well.  It’s a process that builds trust, a greater sense of community, and ultimately a more prosperous city.

 

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The city council will be discussing community goals at the July 5th meeting.  A PDF file of the proposed goals can be downloaded from the city’s website.  I’m not going to go over every single item since anyone can read through the document but there were some things that stuck out that I found particularly interesting.

The goals are grouped together into five main categories:

  • Prioritize & Support Infrastructure Improvements
  • Creation of First Class Tech Community
  • Continued Creation – Development Community of Choice
  • Neighborhood Revitalization
  • Organizational Operations

Infrastructure improvements and neighborhood revitalization are fairly self-explanatory.  Organizational operations pertain mainly to city staff operating more efficiently.  The creation of a first class tech community refers to fiber optic cables.  Development community of choice refers to developing pro-growth business policies, connecting Decatur to Amtrak by either bus or rail, extending city bus hours on certain routes, skills training, amongst other things.

Things That Caught My Attention

Respondents requested more business incentives, restaurants on the city’s south side, Chipotle, Trader Joes, Burlington Coat Factory, and a food truck park in front of Northgate Mall.  Road improvements for Mound and Main Street from Garfield to Eldorado were also requested, as well as beautifying the city’s main corridors.

Truck Park?

I would probably agree with all of the public’s recommendations listed in the presentation except the truck park in front of Northgate Mall.  I think Northgate would benefit by demolishing the closed car wash on Pershing to make the mall more visible from Pershing.  With an abandoned eyesore blocking the view of the mall, I can’t imagine it impresses too many prospective retailers.  I don’t think a truck park would impress them either.  A more welcoming and impressive entrance from Pershing is needed, in my opinion.  I’m not opposed to a truck park locating elsewhere in the city if it fits in well with the surroundings.

Mound Road Retail Development

The other main thing that jumped out at me was retail development at the Mound and US 51 intersection.  It is listed as a goal.  The Target area is pretty much full, so I’m assuming the city is wanting to continue to develop other areas in the vicinity, possibly to the north and/or northeast of Target.  This is probably one of the busiest intersections in the city and I’m sure Decatur would love to capture shoppers before they head on north to Forsyth and attract out-of-towners from nearby I-72.

I grew up in the neighborhood directly to the southeast of the intersection so I know a lot of the history surrounding that part of town, from the neighborhood being annexed by the city in the late 80s, when Walmart opened just to the north, to Mound Middle School being closed, and Target being built.  Heck, I remember when Mound Road was rock and horses and chickens lived on the property where Thorntons gas station is now located.  And I’m not THAT old!

I know more land will be developed for retail purposes in that area.  It’s just a matter of time and I’m okay with that as long as it doesn’t destroy the character and property values of the surrounding neighborhoods.  If it’s another gaming parlor, heck no!  If it’s tasteful restaurants and retail that would fit well inside a neighborhood, I’d consider it.  It could be a tremendous asset to the area if it’s done with the neighborhood in mind. My land management training is kicking in here.  Natural resource management is primarily about land management.

I’d like to see standards built into any type of proposed development in that area with strict guidelines as to what can locate there and what can’t to preserve what’s already functioning well.  It makes no sense to sacrifice a neighborhood for retail.  Responsible homeowners tend to stay and remain invaluable assets to the community, if they’re happy in their surroundings and with the city.  Retail businesses come and go.

Well, I’ll end it here because I’m getting long-winded.  I’ll have a rundown of what the council members had to say on here next week.  Have a happy and safe 4th of July!

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Tonight the city council will likely make a decision on the rezoning request for the new owners of Northgate Mall.  U-Haul purchased the property several months ago and is seeking to turn it into a a major rental center.  This requires rezoning to M-1 Intense Commercial/Light Industrial District.  The planning commission has recommended the proposed changes, while city staff is recommending denial.  City staff feels that the location is ideal for retail development due to its location and the U-Haul center would completely change the character and vision for a high-traffic commercial corner.

The plan as I understand it from reading the council agenda is that the former K’s Merchandise building would be a climate controlled storage center and the former Hollywood video store would be the retail front for U-Haul.  Rental trucks and cars would be parked in front of the old video rental store along Water Street and possibly the lot to the north.  I’m not clear on that one.

I’m reserving judgement until I hear more at the meeting.  Pershing Road has seen significant development and redevelopment in just the past 5 years and new things are coming.  If my sources are right, northsiders should be happy with what is coming to the former Maverick Steak House lot.

A vacant motel was recently torn down directly across from Northgate Mall on Pershing and is generating interest by new retailers.  Now if we can just get rid of that old car wash but that’s another story…

Other changes have occurred on Pershing in the past few years.  New development has occurred in front of the former WSOY radio station where several new buildings have been constructed.  The lot on the corner of Jasper and Pershing Road, which formerly had a car wash is also seeking rezoning in tonight’s meeting and new retail will likely be locating there soon.   So, a lot of development has recently happened or soon will be happening on Pershing Road.  Now, the city council has to decide if U-Haul’s request is a good decision for the continued redevelopment of the area.

I think if the rezoning request came a couple years ago, the decision probably wouldn’t be so difficult but since Decatur is seeing significant new interest in this part of town, it’s not so easy.  I’m leaning towards supporting the approval of the zoning change but it depends upon what impact it will have upon the desirability of other large vacant spaces in the mall.  If the lot is going to be full of U-Haul trucks, rental cars, trailers and so forth, how does that jibe with other types of retail?  That’s my concern.  If some type of landscaping changes could be made separating the U-Haul parking lot from whatever might come to the rest of the shopping center, I’d be in favor.  I think the impact would be minimal with some attractive, clever traffic flow changes making each area distinct.  As the lot looks now, I think it would look odd.

Below:  How it looks now.

hollywood video

And the proposed changes: (click on image for larger view), courtesy of the agenda packet:

uhaul

UPDATE:  Okay, I watched most of the discussion last night regarding the development and I think I would have approved the rezoning.  I realize it’s a prime commercial retail location but I don’t think this would have jeopardized future development elsewhere in Northgate Mall, or along Pershing Road.  Another issue is now that U-Haul owns the property, what are they going to do with it now that they can’t operate the type of business they would like to?  Are they going to sit on it for years like the previous owners did?  That issue wasn’t addressed last night.  I hope it works out but I think the council made a hasty decision.  I feel something could have been worked out to the benefit of all.

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The city of Decatur has submitted a motion to dismiss the claims by former police chief Brad Sweeney, who was terminated by City Manager Tim Gleason.

First, a little background information is helpful here.  Sweeney claims that he was fired for refusing to support the motor fuel tax recently approved by the city council and for calling Gleason out on having a police officer drive him to the St. Louis airport in a police squad car for a personal trip, which is a misuse of city resources and a violation of municipal laws. Sweeney allegedly confronted Gleason after the event and told him that such a misuse would not be tolerated again and after the confrontation their professional relationship became contentious.  At least that’s what I got out of all the allegations.

So, Sweeney filed a lawsuit against Gleason and the City of Decatur for wrongful termination, citing, amongst other things, the Whistle Blower Act.

The city’s motion to dismiss isn’t a denial or admittance of wrongdoing on Gleason’s part but rather an argument that Sweeney doesn’t qualify as a whistle blower legally because he didn’t start blowing the whistle until after he was fired, essentially.

The motion claims that Sweeney committed a Class 3 felony “since he failed to arrest or cause to be arrested all persons who are found violating any municipal ordinance or any criminal law of the state.”

The motion tries to paint Sweeney as a public servant failing to carry out his duties but in the process paints the city manager as equally as guilty of the same offense, in my opinion.  It reminds me of one of my high school friends who reported to a police officer that another car that had passed him on Brush College Road had to be going over 100 mph because he was going 85 himself when the car passed him in 40 mph zone.  Whoops!  Did I say that?  The motion doesn’t admit wrongdoing on Gleason’s part but by arguing that Sweeney committed a felony by not enforcing municipal laws that the current city manager broke, isn’t the city manager also admitting guilt in a roundabout way?  If so, shouldn’t the city manager be terminated from employment as well?  And if the city manager did misuse city resources then why is the city council so eager to stand in his corner?

This all comes across as a big steaming pile of poo no matter how it is presented.  It’s not good for the city’s image. The city council needs to seriously consider whether it is in the city’s best interest to continue with Gleason’s employment as city manager.

I don’t think it is in the city’s best interest to keep Gleason, and not because of the recent tax increases, which none of us like, but because of the level of trust that is gone.

Here is a link to the full motion:  http://www.nowdecatur.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/12/2016/02/complaint-city.pdf

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It’s a snowy, blustery day in Decatur and so I’d thought I’d taken advantage of my time trapped indoors and catch up some stuff.  The fuel tax was passed as everyone expected it to.  Essentially it will help pay to fill in potholes and do basic repairs on the city’s side streets.  If you were hoping to get a newly paved road in your neighborhood, it’s not too likely.  I understand the need for the revenue but I’m not sure it was worth the bad feelings it produced, especially considering the roads are still going to be kinda cruddy.  With that in mind, I think there’s a few things I think the city can look at for increasing revenue without increasing taxes and I’ll discuss a couple of them today.

I would like the city to take a look at the number of and value of the TIF districts in the city.  I think the TIF district downtown did it’s job well in helping fund the streetscape improvements.  However, I would like the city to study all of our TIF districts and see if they’re still worth it.  Are they doing their job? Would the city be better off as a whole if those tax dollars were put back into the general fund? I don’t know but I think it’s worth looking into.

Another thing that concerns me are the tax incentives that we hand out to businesses to locate in Decatur.  For instance, we have had several deals in the past that probably haven’t served the city well.  Some businesses, as an incentive for locating in Decatur, get to keep a big chunk of the city’s sales tax for themselves for a number of years.  Other businesses don’t have to pay property taxes for a good number of years.  I’m okay with a 2-year break but beyond that I don’t believe multi-million dollar companies need 5-20 year tax breaks.  I don’t get a tax break.  Local small businesses, who are much more likely to stick around, don’t get the breaks.  Such incentive plans are unfair to those already invested in the city.  They are also causing the city to lose out on a significant amount of tax revenue that it desperately needs.

I believe the city also needs to review how incentives are presented and what types of incentives are available.  In other words, let’s have it all written down in plain English and posted on the city’s website for all to see, including prospective businesses.  No more behind the scenes smoochy smoochy sweetheart deals for some and crumbs for others.

Let’s say a company wants to locate in Decatur, invest X amount of dollars, and bring X amount of full-time jobs that pay at least $15/hour for entry-level positions.  Well, I think they deserve a great incentive package.  We want those kinds of companies.  Heck, we’ll throw rose petals at their feet but if they fail to live up to their promises then they lose the incentives.

I think businesses would appreciate a very upfront, easy to understand process that everybody has to live by.  I wouldn’t want to horse around wheeling and dealing with the city to hammer out a deal.  What a pain.  Just make the process fair and transparent.

Well, those are a few things that I think the city needs to address.  I have a few more ideas I’ll share later.

 

 

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