Editorial: Columbia City Council should think long, hard before approving Bull Street agreement Tuesday

THE SLIM 4-3 margin by which Columbia City Council tentatively approved an agreement that will guide the redevelopment of the State Hospital property on Bull Street is a sure sign the seven-member body shouldn’t hasten to sign off on the arrangement.

While there are times when important matters get decided by close votes and most certainly should proceed lest the minority block progress, there is no reason for this issue to fall into that category. This is a must-do project that holds amazing economic potential for not only Columbia but the surrounding region. There is strong consensus across Columbia in favor of the development and the city’s involvement.

The reason to slow the process down isn’t to harm this project. It’s to ensure that the level of public investment and the long-term commitment the council would be making on behalf of citizens is justified.

And it’s far better to enter such an agreement with more support. Monday’s 4-3 vote resulted from the majority’s desire to forge ahead despite calls from fellow council members and the public to slow down, educate citizens and consider suggested improvements. That should compel the council to postpone a final vote planned for Tuesday on this complex, first-of-its-kind agreement for Columbia.

Mayor Steve Benjamin, who is leading the charge for swift approval, says the vote will be held, although there is evidence that he has been listening to public input; he said he expects changes to be made as a result of dialogue thus far.

While we appreciate a willingness to consider changes, the quality of input depends on the community having ample time and opportunity to respond before a final vote. The public has had less than two weeks to digest the agreement.

Those on the council pushing for fast approval mean well. But the fact remains that whatever is driving them is no more important than the taxpayers and citizens who will foot the bill for tens of millions of dollars in new infrastructure.

Residents want the council to slow down and push the developer to preserve more buildings and trees, provide a master plan and tighten procurement standards. They rightly ask that council identify how it will pay for infrastructure.

Granting the request to slow things up a bit doesn’t mean agreeing to every proposed change. Not every building preservationists cherish will be preserved. Nor will every favored tree be saved. Likewise, some parts of the agreement should be removed, such as any public funding for a minor league baseball stadium.

Before casting a vote Tuesday, the council should consider whether that will destroy good will and weaken the consensus that exists in favor of developing the Bull Street site. Why not take a brief pause — two weeks — to give people breathing room on the other side of the July 4 holiday that had many distracted and even out of town? The long-term success of this project could depend on it.

Coming Monday: Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and City Council member Leona Plaugh face off for and against a quick vote.