Back to the future

COLUMBIA, Mo 10/19/15 (Op Ed) -- It was a bizarre turn of events that shed light on the Machiavellian way Columbia city manager Mike Matthes operates.

The city's "property acquisition officer" Wendy Lister threatened to use eminent domain to acquire the vacant lot at 500 N. Garth where the Shotgun House once stood.

With the recent announcement City Hall plans to build "bus shelters" around town  -- one on that lot -- senior city administrators pretending that was the plan all along.   But just 5 months ago, the only plan they had for the lot was to build a sidewalk along part of it.  

Purchasing the lot "may" happen as an "alternative," they told the Council, which gave them no authority to take the lot with eminent domain.  

About 7 years ago, the Historic Preservation Commission received notice the Shotgun House – then derelict -- was scheduled for demolition under orders from the city.    

Not much was known about the house, only that it was a last intact remnant of an historically African-American architectural style rumored to have been an early home of Columbia educator Beulah Ralph.  

Look carefully at many other houses in the central city, and you’ll see Shotgun designs added onto over the years.   This one, however, was in its original form.  

Though the idea was outlandish, I joined an effort to buy the house -- and move it, to a place its preservation would be assured.   So began a year-long quest that ultimately saw the house moved to the Boone Historic Junction park, where it has since been the subject of a full restoration, a Ph.D. thesis, and many tours.   

It was a project other communities (here, here, and here) have emulated.  It's also ironic, given the eminent domain threat.   City Hall owns Boone Junction, so we had donated the house to the city!  

Moving the Shotun House was interesting but arduous.   We started by cleaning it up, using snow shovels to haul away several truck loads of insulation that had fallen down inside.   We secured volunteer help, and the interest of 4th Ward Councilman Jerry Wade, who made the move a pet project, helping secure sewer repair funds and other city assistance (moving power lines, etc.)   

Some weeks before the Council’s vote on the sidewalk project this April, public works staff tossed around the idea of buying the lot, ostensibly for a bus stop.    Price and terms were not discussed.

A few months later, Lister demanded the lot be sold to the City for $15,000 and change, $10,000 below an estimate Realtors had placed on the property’s value; and also below an average per-square-foot price for other city-purchased lots in the central part of town.  

Ms. Lister based her “offer price” on two dubious sources:  a Federal block grant “one-size-fits-all in low-income neighborhoods” property appraisal guideline;  and a secondary appraisal from Allan Moore, who should have no business involved in any such thing.  

Mr. Moore is a regular participant in city politics, and was a major advocate for the “blight” declaration three years ago.   His ability to render an impartial appraisal to City Hall is questionable at best. 

For six years, the empty lot had been an ongoing hassle, financially and otherwise.  Picking up trash thrown from cars and pedestrians on Worley and Garth.  Mowing the lawn every 2-3 weeks from April to October.  The whole move thing.  

And now, a new expense:  spend $500 on our own appraisal in preparation for the city's imminent eminent domain lawsuit.   That appraisal came in at $20,000 – the cost of the lot and Shotgun House seven years ago.   

Then we caught a lucky break.   Ms. Lister split the difference, agreeing to pay $18K, but clear eminent domain would kick in if that offer didn't fly.   

I confronted her about this at closing, asking if she knew the history of the lot, from its donation and so on.  She said she did.   And that she would have used eminent domain -- aka "condemnation" -- regardless.   

The loosey-goosey nature of condemnation, particularly in the central, is one reason, is one reason it's so hard to interest many people in building low-income housing there.  

At any time, and on almost any flimsy pretext, non-elected city administrators with too much power and money can come in and take the land, just as they did 50 and 60 years ago around Douglass High School and the Sharp End.  

Which only adds to the irony:  City Hall threatens condemnation of the lot upon which stood the last intact Shotgun House, a model of African-American architecture.  

History can indeed repeat. 


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