One woman buys a house in need of love in a neighborhood in need of care. Then she meets City Hall, the School District, infrastructure problems, and a parking lot only a bureaucrat could love.
COLUMBIA, 11/10/10 (Beat Byte) -- It's hard to find a person with a more genuine affection for home and hometown than the subject of this story, Patricia Fowler.
A Boston-educated lawyer and Boone County Planning and Zoning commissioner, Ms. Fowler's love for the cause of a better Columbia -- which comes across as selfless and even endearing -- has helped her walk a fine line few local activists ever successfully navigate.
Vocal about the need to do the right thing, she adamantly speaks truth to power. And yet, where speaking up to power in our provincial little burg often merits dismissal and derogation, Ms. Fowler (left, CAT TV photo) remains well-regarded, extremely so in most quarters. If it's any indication, among those to whom I speak in the First Ward, she's a top pick to replace Columbia City Councilman Paul Sturtz when he steps aside next year. A "dream ticket pick," in fact.
But Ms. Fowler is unlikely to run for such a job. Her voice has been an effective moral catalyst beyond the bureaucracy, nowhere more in evidence than in her months-long struggle to get a parking lot to conform with the ways -- and laws -- of her progressive hometown.
Park those dreams
Appearing as out of a bad dream next door to a darling 90-year-old house Fowler has been restoring with loving gusto, the parking lot -- for Jefferson Junior High School -- couldn't have come with more nightmare-inspiring baggage.
It sits on the edge of a carefully-marked flood plain that turns routine storms into Arkian adventures, and by its tilted design, could -- without perceptive planning and obsessive oversight -- channel thousands of gallons of stormwater into Ms. Fowler's and her neighbors' homes.
(Parking lots aren't known for their permeability, even when permeability is part of their design).
In the same flood plain, major portions of the stormwater drainage system were declared D.O.A. by the very engineering firm -- Columbia-based Engineering Surveys and Services (ESS) -- charged with designing the parking lot for Columbia Public Schools (CPS). "We encourage the City of Columbia to review this situation, and consider this as a maintenance issue in dire need of repair," ESS wrote about the dead stormwater system in a 2007 report to City Hall.
But that was three years ago and counting.
Wings of a waiver
The Jeff Jr. parking lot flew into Ms. Fowler's life on the wings of a waiver -- a dangerous-sounding bureaucratic thing with few details about its impact on neighbors, most recently a new arts education center for elementary school children just across the street. The waiver, from City Hall, seemed to let the School District skate on a number of important parking lot requirements, like drainage regulations, water quality, and other hard-won environmental caveats.
"Aside from the water quality issues covered by the waiver, I'm concerned about how the parking lot meets the neighborhood and my property," Fowler wrote to public works planner Phillip Teeple, part of a City Hall team charged with regulatory oversight. "Will there be a vegetative border? What aspects can we suggest to minimize crime, i.e. crime prevention through environmental design? How can we adjust the landscaping to absorb additional rain water through vegetative plantings (which should also help the water quality issues as a handy filter)?"
All this after Fowler, neighbors, and neighborhood association officials attended a joint meeting with city and school district honchos that should have answered these questions. In attendance: CPS school superintendent Chris Belcher; assistant school superintendent Wanda Brown; school board president Jan Mees and board member Ines Segert; this writer; ESS engineer Dave Bennett, who gave a presentation; Teeple and fellow public works employees, who chimed in -- often with a kind of patronizing glee, especially when Fowler -- a woman in a man's world of parking lots and such -- dared speak with a measure of authority.
They all came to communicate about the parking lot at the Jefferson Junior Media Center. But what did they really say?
Though engineer Bennett sometimes blustered impatiently -- particularly when Ms. Fowler would raise her hand -- most attendees seemed to listen. Everyone, it seemed, got to speak. It seemed a grand idea that the Columbia school district would build a model parking lot -- a model of stormwater mitigation; a model of environmental design; a model of community care; a model for students, teachers, parents, and neighbors.
A model, because modeling is what schools are supposed to do.
But Ms. Fowler came away with more questions than answers, particularly about that iffy-sounding waiver.
"The granting of the waiver was an event I was not expecting," she wrote Teeple after the meeting. "While this may be pro forma to city engineering professionals, it concerns me and the neighbors within my neighborhood association who attended the August 30th meeting. We didn't see that one coming."
Indeed. And so, the bureaucrats would go back to their desks to cite and memorandize and shoot Ms. Fowler's arguments full of new bullet points. And the wearing down would begin....
Next time: "It's hard work to be a good citizen; even harder work to be a good Columbia citizen."