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JOHN'S LOT: Is pricey vacant land key to historic home demolition push?

Conflict or coincidence?
 
COLUMBIA, 2/3/13 (Beat Byte) -- Is it coincidence two people leading a push to tear down eight historic homes along Providence Road in the Grasslands neighborhood also own a vacant lot (photo) in the path of the bulldozers and could make a lot of money?

That's what neighbors involved in a controversy over the proposed demolitions -- otherwise known as Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the Providence Improvement Project -- are asking. 

Grasslands residents and others attended the most packed meeting this writer has ever seen in the new City Hall chambers, to debate the Providence proposal Thursday night.  With lines out the door, Historic Preservation Commission chair Brian Treece -- whose group hosted the event -- had to delay the start time to accommodate the crowd.

Three-hour tour
 
After three hours of public testimony and presentations about the current plan and alternatives, it became clear senior city administrators were up to their old tricks, stifling debate and meddling with democracy.  Then-city manager Bill Watkins had reportedly even asked then-City Councilwoman Laura Nauser not to talk to neighbors so his staff could have "maximum" flexibility to negotiate a deal.
 
The deal:  Spend millions buying property, tearing down homes, widening Providence, adding crosswalks and installing traffic lights. Meeting attendees seemed to like the crosswalks and lights, but hated tearing down the homes. It would scalp the Grasslands they exclaimed, rip off its crown, and destroy Columbia's most picturesque gateway.
 
What's worse: many neighbors didn't even know about the 2-phase plan and felt left out of the process.

Who knew what and when eventually emerged, but not before Treece and fellow commissioners grilled city traffic engineer Scott Bitterman, who did the old Jackie Gleason/Ralph Kramden "homina homina" routine when asked "whose plan is it to tear down all these houses?

"Who made up the plan? Where did you get it?"
 
"The Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT)," Bitterman shimmied.  Then: No, not MoDOT -- maybe the city. No, no -- not the city. MoDOT. Yeah, that's it. MoDOT.

Then Treece referenced a constituent email from former 5th Ward Councilwoman Helen Anthony that spilled the beans:   Three men were behind the plan:  John Ott, Robbie Price -- and City of Columbia public works director John Glascock.

The Three Houseketeers
 
John's last name rhymes with "lot," as in the vacant lot on the corner of Providence and Burnam he might sell to the city for for several hundred thousand dollars if the plan goes through;  and Robbie's last name is "Price," as in the price of the lot.  If eminent domain is used as planned, all the better: no capital gains taxes.

Price owns the vacant lot in partnership with Ott, Columbia Business Times publisher Al Germond and his partner, Dave Baugher, another Grasslands neighbor.

Glascock strikes some folks as Columbia's version of Simon Bar Sinister. "The plans for Phase 1 and 2 were formulated by" these three men, Anthony wrote, surprising because Ott and Price served as presidents of the Grasslands Neighborhood Association while pushing these plans. 

Price is the current president; Ott is past president.  Neighborhood associations must be formally approved by the City Council;  the two men represent their neighbors before the Council and are public officials in that capacity.
 
Among the gripes:  As official representatives of city government, i.e. presidents of a neighborhood association, it seems like a huge conflict of interest owning a 12,000 square foot vacant lot in the path of an $8 million city-state highway juggernaut.
 
Neither man should be pushing a plan that could make them a bundle of money.
 
Even more galling, Ott and Price have nothing to lose.  Unlike their neighbors, they own vacant land -- no house to demolish, no wrenching goodbyes to a piece of CoMo history, no emotional upheaval.  Just an oddly-shaped lot worth a whole lot more than it would be if Uncle Mo hadn't come calling with his taxpayer checkbook.

Coincidence -- or conflict?
 
Price and Ott are likable people, all the more reason their neighbors are befuddled. 

Price is one of the most personable -- and as my wife says, handsome -- fellows you're ever gonna meet.  He's charming, gracious, kind, and has a twinkle in his eye whenever he talks to you.

Ott is humble, soft-spoken, almost diffident, never saying a mean word about anyone. He's also the closest thing Columbia has to a patron saint of historic preservation, which makes his involvement in the Providence demolitions supremely ironic.
 
Both Ott and Price are also among Columbia's most successful men, the kind of people you might hold up to your kids. They're leaders, by virtue not only of money and power, but charm, affability, and smarts.  Without Ott's vision and ability to implement grand plans, downtown Columbia wouldn't be half what it is today. And I can't think of a better neighborhood representative than Price.

Still, they do own the lot -- bought it back in 2003 County records indicate, with Germond and Baugher.

Coincidentally, people keep saying the Providence Improvement Project kicked off about a decade ago. "Neighbors should know about it by now," supporters have griped.  "We've been plannin' it nigh on ten years." 

Or since right around the time the four men bought the lot.
 
Price, Ott, and Baugher owe their neighbors a choice: either sell the lot or abstain from further involvement in any Providence plans.  Maybe even step down from neighborhood leadership.  Phase 1 and 2, meanwhile, should be scrapped. 
 
Conflict or coincidence, the Providence Improvement Project is tainted.

-- Mike Martin for the Columbia Heart Beat
 
 
RELATED:
(Click "Map It" to view the lot)
 
 
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