Back in the day, leaving college dorm life for an off-campus apartment meant only a slight upgrade in niceties. The bigger prize? Greater independence and more freedom from prying adult eyes.
It's time to leave that 20th century perspective– and the ratty porch sofa – behind. Now, students at the University of Missouri and in other college towns are flocking to high-end downtown apartment complexes that boast granite countertops, enormous flat-screen TVs and an ample taste of the good life with such amenities as rooftop swimming pools and on-site tanning salons.
In Columbia, the desirous downtown destinations are forcing city leaders to confront thornier questions about parking, excessive noise, historic preservation and long-term planning. Downtown development is a prominent issue in Tuesday's mayoral election, which comes soon after a St. Louis developer backed away from plans to tear down the historic Niedermeyer building and replace it with more student high-rises.
“The big concern is a loss of downtown as we know it,” said Sid Sullivan, who is challenging Mayor Bob McDavid in the municipal election. “Many of us are concerned that too much of a good thing is not necessarily a good thing.”
Only a few short years ago, downtown boosters and civic leaders were bemoaning the lack of more upscale housing choices in the central city. That was before such projects as Brookside on College, which houses several hundred residents on a busy intersection across from Stephens College and plans to more than double in size.
The same developers, brothers Jon and Nathan Odle, also have opened an Elm Street student complex and are building a third downtown Brookside project just blocks away.
Across the street from the university's School of Journalism, a local development team's Lofts at 308 Ninth promises its future tenants not just convenience but whirlpool bathtubs, 50-inch flat screens and top-of-the-line appliances. The five-story building's first floor will feature retail space, including a Jimmy John's sub shop and International Tap House, a St. Louis-based business that boasts a selection of hundreds of beers.
“People would love to have our problem,” said project partner Tom Mendenhall, rattling off the names of nearby smaller communities where boarded-up storefronts dominate the downtown landscape.
Historic preservation consultant Deb Sheals said the recent and rapid downtown growth requires a broader review of how the city manages growth. As public outcry over the proposed Niedermeyer demolition mounted, the Columbia City Council considered a six-month moratorium on issuing demolition projects downtown. That idea fizzled, and a University of Missouri math professor and local landlord now plans to buy and fix up the building.
“I think we need to pay attention to how growth develops, but I don't think we're in danger of falling apart,” Sheals said. Rather than an abundance of student housing, she hopes to see more projects that appeal to a broader demographic, from young professionals and 30-something parents to empty nesters with time and money to spare.
“What happens if the bubble bursts?” she said. “We've got to figure it out.”
The city isn't sitting by idly, considering increased parking requirements for downtown developments as well as a broader review of its zoning code.
The Downtown Community Improvement District, which represents downtown residents and business owners, is asking the Columbia City Council to support a 10-story height restriction on new buildings. Developers who added “bonus zoning options” such as ground-floor commercial space or subsidized transit passes for residents could receive variances to increase those height limits.
That 10-story limit is no accident. The iconic Tiger Hotel, circa 1928, is 10 stories high – counting its rooftop “TIGER” sign.