Law student starts petition to preserve historic downtown

The petition, which would create new zoning ordinances, has gained over 2,000 signatures to date.

Missouri law student Grace Shemwell poses for a picture on March 8.

Second-year law student Grace Shemwell recently started a petition directed at Mayor Bob McDavid and the Columbia City Council calling for a halt to proposed student housing developments that would displace historic buildings from downtown Columbia. As of March 2, the petition has gained 2,636 supporters.

The Maneater sat down with Shemwell at a Work Session held by the Columbia Historic Preservation Commission on March 1 at the James Apartment Building, which is being replaced by a student housing complex this year.

Q: What motivated you to create the petition?

Shemwell: I grew up here — I’m a third-generation Tiger and I had grandparents who lived here. My parents were married in a church right next door here.

My second motivation is I saw on social media a lot of my friends very disturbed by the amount of luxury housing and how it was displacing affordable housing and how it tended to be a lot of historical building. Sometimes it's not even housing; it’s historical buildings like the Shakespeare’s building. I said, “No one’s going to see your voice on Facebook, so I’m going to create a forum for your voice.”

What’s the value of protecting historic structures downtown?

Shemwell: A lot of the attraction of the district is the district as a whole, and it is a chainmail of beautiful little gems. The Blue Note is a really unique place, Booches is a really unique place — Mark Twain ate at Booches. Places are attractive for residents and visitors because they’re fun places to be, they’re affordable places to go and they’ve got a historical background that makes it so unique.

About 75 percent of my petition (signatures) is local people who value history in our district area. You go to different buildings, you’ll find different things. You’ll find tin ceilings in certain places; you’ll find hand carved tables … you’re finding great hardware and wood doors you’ll never find in any place.

What are the petition’s goals?

Shemwell:My primary goal was to have the council overturn their decision. At that point in time, I hadn’t studied the case law yet; my primary goal is literally impossible. Under state law, they have to accept a plat if it reaches the zoning requirements. The plat met the zoning requirement.

The secondary goals are achievable, and that is to create a zoning (requirement) that will take into account what citizens want and what the (State Historical Society of Missouri) wants while allowing for economic growth. You see these sorts of zoning areas in historical districts around the world. It really creates a balanced environment and allows for outward growth.

The third goal is to incentivize affordable housing for students. So instead of knocking people (from existing housing) for bringing in luxury housing, or just allowing people to build whatever they want, you would incentivize affordable housing so people would want to build that; which really helps out students and communities alike.

What are your thoughts on luxury housing in Columbia?

Shemwell: The demand for the market is not for luxury housing, which is what people outside of the state and outside of the city are envisioning. They’re envisioning us as an SEC school — as rich kids willing to pay $1,000 a month to live downtown. That’s obviously not the case when Brookside has 50 housing units that are not filled, that are vacant. Housing right now is suffering a lot of urban sprawl for affordability and a lot of high costs for poor housing units downtown.

What are your thoughts on local politicians in regards to this issue?

Shemwell: There has been a lot of gifting donations to (local mayoral campaigns), by the people who are developing these high rise complexes. People need to vote into office people who care about the things they care about.

(Fourth Ward Councilman) Ian Thomas … met with me personally. He cares about his constituents. People like (Fifth Ward Councilwoman) Laura (Nauser), she doesn’t really care about her constituents. She wants what her political ideals are … and there’s already been uprising against her because she’s not fulfilling what her constituents want.

(Mayoral candidate Brian Treece) reached out to me and said, “OK, I care about history, too.” I think that says something when you have a mayoral candidate who comes to salvage a place that someone set a thousand dollar donation for closing.

Any final thoughts to add?

Shemwell: I would also encourage people to keep signing the petition, because each signature is a signature that counts for bringing this incentive to the city council.

Edited by Hailey Stolze | hstolze@themaneater.com

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