If BK&M LLC’s plans for a mixed-use development at a heavily trafficked corner in the University Heights neighborhood are to advance, Springfield City Council must approve a zoning change.
That issue will soon come to a head. Developers are scheduled to appear before council April 17 for a public hearing on their request to change the zoning at the corner of Sunshine Street and National Avenue to commercial from single-family residential.
Developers were scheduled to present their plans to the city’s Planning & Zoning Commission on April 6, hours after this publication went to press, to try to gain that body’s approval. City staff has already given its qualified approval.
Meanwhile, a group of 12 neighborhood residents filed a lawsuit against BK&M in December 2022 to halt the development in the century-old neighborhood that has resisted commercial development. The neighbors cite deed restrictions that prohibit all but private residences in University Heights.
In January, BK&M filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on the basis of precedent rulings that maintain restrictive covenants that are in doubt should be resolved in favor of free use of property. However, at the end of March, Greene County Presiding Judge Michael Cordonnier denied the motion.
BK&M has drawn up plans for The Heights, a building originally proposed for up to six stories and 90,000 square feet, with apartments on upper floors and restaurant and retail space on the ground floor.
But Ralph Duda, one of the owners of BK&M along with Anthony Tolliver, Marty Duda and Brad Miller, said feedback by neighborhood residents has led them to revise those plans, and now they are pursuing a two- to three-story development.
In their application to the city for a conditional overlay district, the developers are also proposing other limitations for the site, which is passed by some 70,000 motorists each day, according to the city’s public works department:
Additionally, the conditional overlay would require the building to be constructed in one of three architectural styles that are indigenous to University Heights: English Tudor, recognizable from its exposed timber beams and brick or stucco surfaces; French country, featuring natural stone facades and an Old World style; or Bissman, a style combining elements of each that was devised by Springfield architect Carl Bissman at the start of the 20th century.
The original rendering for The Heights presented by BK&M was in a mixed Colonial Revival and French Second Empire style that was at odds with neighborhood homes with its hooded black roofline and central columns.
“That’s really what we’re leaning towards with this development, is to do a Bissman architecture where it’s going to be made of brick, stone or stucco,” Duda said. “It’s going to complement the neighborhood.”
That’s something Duda said the intersection’s most recent development, a contemporary CoxHealth clinic on the southwest corner, did not do.
“We see how important it is to the neighbors,” he said.
Be Kind and Merciful
The CoxHealth project inspired the BK&M team in another way, Duda said, and that was in the selection of its name, which stands for Be Kind and Merciful.
“Driving by the Cox development as it was being developed, they just had a big sign that just said ‘Cox,’” he said. “We’re in marketing and business. … Put a positive spin on it, with how divided everybody is.”
The team decided to go with the Be Kind and Merciful name because kindness is what’s needed right now, Duda said.
The initial August 2022 meeting between residents and developers set a fractious tone, however. BK&M showed up having purchased neighborhood homes but had no plans or renderings to share.
At the time, Duda and Tolliver said they saw the property as a blank slate that neighbors could help draw on as they generated plans together. But many neighbors said they found the approach disingenuous and argued no developer would purchase property without a good idea of what they wanted to put there.
The name of the company became a point of ridicule.
“I think people put a spin on it, saying, ‘Oh, that’s so ironic. They’re everything but kind and merciful,’” Duda said.
But he said negative people can make anything negative. For Duda, the negativity takes the form of daily emails that are belligerent and insulting. That just firms up his resolve, he noted.
“We literally want to be kind and merciful people. It’s just who we are,” he said.
Marty Duda, Ralph’s younger brother, said he came into the project after Tolliver and Duda.
“I didn’t have to stand there in front of the first neighborhood like these two guys, so you know, maybe my perspective is a little different,” he said. “I think we’ll all look back on this in 10, 20 years and be like, you know, those are just some pains that we had to go through to get people to realize the potential of the corner and to see that it can truly be something that benefits Springfield.”
Is Springfield anti-development?
Although Duda has struck a conciliatory tone in some regards, he remains forthright about Springfield’s attitude toward growth.
“I think a lot of Springfield is anti-development,” he said.
According to Duda, other developers take their money to places like Dallas, Tulsa, Oklahoma, or other large cities that are more development friendly. The general belief among people in the field is that Springfield is a tough town to develop in, he said.
“That kind of tone is going to stifle growth,” he said. “We have to keep growing. We have to keep bringing the Costcos, the Buc-ee’s, the Menards in for jobs and to grow our city and do it in a responsible way.”
He added that if development is done responsibly, in a way that is sensitive to neighbors, it can be a win for everybody.
Those University Heights residents who oppose The Heights view themselves as preserving a historic Springfield neighborhood – a community asset in its own right – rather than as a force working against development.
In past Springfield Business Journal reporting, an attorney hired by some neighborhood residents, Lee J. Viorel III of Lowther & Johnson Attorneys at Law LLC, explained there were several problems with the development, among these the existence of the restrictive covenants barring commercial development, conflict with the city’s comprehensive plan, traffic and parking concerns, water detention, sidewalk issues and impact on property values.
Residents have also complained about a meeting held in a tent on the site during a thunderstorm. Mark Fletcher said the meeting was in flagrant violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Fletcher also told SBJ he knows of no precedent in Missouri law for ignoring deed restrictions – limitations that purchasers agree to as a condition of buying property.
Maybe it’s the athlete’s competitive spirit at work, but 13-year NBA player Tolliver said he appreciates the fire he sees from neighborhood residents.
“I love it – I’m not going to lie,” he said. “And the reason why is because it shows the people of University Heights are super passionate.”
Duda conceded the neighborhood has fire.
“It’s rare to see that kind of love and passion,” he said. “Now when that love and passion turn negative and hateful, I disagree with that 100%. There are more responsible ways to have dialogue.”
Duda said some neighbors have been willing to communicate with the BK&M team.
“I’ve never turned down a meeting. None of us have, and we’ll always meet and listen and take suggestions,” he said.
Tolliver noted neighborhood influence has greatly impacted how BK&M views the site and the terms of the proposed conditional overlay district.
“It’s about doing something that everybody can be proud of at the end of the day,” Tolliver said. He acknowledged that not everyone will like the end result.
“That’s fine, but for the people who are willing to work with us, we’re definitely willing to work with you – listen and hear your thoughts,” he said. “But it’s still a development; it’s still a business, and it’s still something that has to make money.”
Adrianna Norris became a first-time business owner with the opening of Finley River Chiropractic; PaPPo’s Pizzeria & Pub launched its newest location; and Huey Magoo’s opened its second store in the Ozarks.