Wednesday, March 26, 2008

News Briefs


City denies access to public documents on 5 Pts. garage

Before President Bush’s state of the union addresses, I used to write the words “terror” and “freedom” on a log sheet and put little checks next to them every time he said one. Standing in the back of city hall on March 19, with Doug Quackenbush, city planners, and the Five Points Association slated to speak at a Five Points zoning hearing, I wrote the words “funky” and “eclectic” in my notebook and made sure my pen had plenty of ink left. Instead, there was a different term that kept popping up: “new urbanism.”


The new urbanism school of development—both praised and criticized—seeks to combat suburban sprawl, provide a more pedestrian friendly environment and strike a balance between commercial and residential spaces. The Future Five project will use a new urbanism model to completely revamp the “upper” Five Points area on Harden Street between College and Gervais. The new zoning overlay in question would reduce parking requirements by 20 percent and allow developers to build vertically up to 75 feet.     
Five Points Association (FPA) board members and supporters, some 15 strong, voiced unanimous approval of the project.
Leslie Minerd, owner of Hip-Wa-Zee on Harden St., said she supports the plan as long as there are design guidelines and said she believes it will help preserve nearby homes and raise property values in the area. Coles Lawton, president of the Wales Garden neighborhood association and residents of University Hill, two areas largely unaffected by proposed construction, voiced their approval as well, though one homeowner from University Hill said she doesn’t “want any more bars in Five Points.”
Some area real estate developers and property owners in the area, however, expressed staunch opposition to the plan, saying the current guidelines will limit density, which will cause higher prices and bring about a gentrifying effect that could ultimately price out the very small businesses owners who favor the plan. Others said it would exclude affordable housing, to say nothing of the poor timing of a large-scale development project in the face of looming recession.
In order to fully implement the plan, council voted unanimous approval on the first reading of a  new mixed use zoning category. The MX-1 category was first initiated by the FPA in 2005 and has gone through six public hearings and two planning commission meetings. The new category will lower a building’s setback requirement from the street from 25 feet to 10 feet, thus giving developers more room to build. It will provide for mixed commercial and residential use with a pedestrian priority, will limit wholesale trade and automotive-related uses and will limit outdoor storage. MX-1 zoning is expecting to be applied to other projects like Innovista, as well.
Doug Quackenbush, whose architectural firm is also handling Innovista, told city council that the flexible building guidelines with MX-1 would allow Five Points to keep it’s “funky” feel. (Check.)
When Marc Mylott, the city’s director of development services and zoning administrator was midway through his MX-1 pitch, Councilman Kirkman Finlay III, whose grilling of developers has become legendary in some circles, leaned forward to his microphone. We media types in the back, some TV crews lounging in the floor by this time, perked up.
“So, is this the beginning of commercial development in residential neighborhoods?” Finlay asked.
The semantic exchange was reminiscent of a Monty Python sketch.
“No,” Mylott said after a pause, “commercial just becomes more residential.”
“Does it allow residential to become commercial?” Finlay countered.
“It doesn’t allow residential to move up to commercial,” Mylott parried, “but allows commercial to move down to residential.”
Finlay considered that for a moment and said, “Well, it sounds to me like somebody’s going to win and somebody’s going to lose.”
Toward the end of the hearing on Five Points zoning, William Durham—who had been pacing in the back with his arms folded, while staring down city council like a boxer before a match—finally took the podium.
Durham blasted council about the proposed mixed-use public parking garage on what has come to be known as the “Kenny’s Auto site” at the corner of Saluda and Blossom. There is a limit to what private businesses can do, he said. But, the purchase price for the Kenny’s Auto site was jacked up to a record $80 per square foot due to city involvement, he said, with the final price topping out at $4 million.
Last month, the city denied a City Paper Freedom of Information Act request seeking records pertaining to the Kenny’s Auto site, stating it was “not deemed public information... due to pending contract” despite the fact that the city plans to pay HR Developers $1 million in public funds for use of the second and third floors of the structure for parking, according to a March, 2007 transaction memorandum. The city then plans to pay $24,000 per parking space for 200 parking spaces, according to the memorandum, which brings the actual total to $5.8 million.
Many are upset that the city used a “no bid” process and conducted meetings related to the purchase behind closed doors. In recent campaign mail outs, city council candidate Cameron Runyan charges that Councilman Daniel Rickenmann received campaign funds from a developer involved with the Kenny’s Auto site. Councilman Kirkman Finlay III has so far been the only council member to vote against the project.
Columbia City Council is expected to cast a final vote on the new zoning and Five Points master plan on April 2.



DHHS announces insurance for impoverished children

The S.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) announced last week that it will implement a new program called “Healthy Connections Kids” for the purpose of providing coverage to uninsured children, up to age 19, with family income between 150 and 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). The 2008 FPL, released Jan 23, sets the poverty line for a family of four, for example, at an annual income of $21,200.
If the program gets final approval from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the department plans to begin accepting applications for the coverage on April 1.
The program will be administered by managed care organizations only.
Last year Medicaid began mailing out enrollment forms in the Midlands for its new Healthy Connections Choices (HCC) program, which stems from recent state Medicaid reform. Implemented in phases, the HCC program reached the Lowcountry last month. The program is designed to aid members in enrollment to managed care plans, which exist to provide patients with access to long-term primary care. In addition to traditional benefits, the new programs, including Healthy Connections Kids, will offer extras like unlimited doctor visits, dental care and eyeglasses.
Call 1-877-552-4642 for more information.
-Todd Morehead

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