University Heights developer claims unfair treatment in letter to city

A controversial development in University Heights has yet to be formally presented to Springfield’s governing bodies, but Be Kind & Merciful developer Ralph Duda alleged in a letter to city council that “unreasonable forces” within government of the city were working against him.

This latest twist in the University Heights saga comes after the city’s planning and zoning commission had a lengthy discussion about creating a University Heights Neighborhood Plan or Corridor Plan for the nearby intersection of Sunshine Street and National Avenue – where Duda’s proposed development is planned.

Zoning commissioners eventually recommended the city consider a corridor plan. And while city staff made it clear that Duda’s requested rezoning application would not be affected by the effort, Duda expressed his displeasure in person to commissioners and in a letter he submitted to council.

Speaking during public comments on the proposed corridor plan, Duda claimed that several commissioners were biased against his project even before it was presented to them. In his letter to city council, he was even more explicit in his criticism – calling out commissioners Chris Lebeck and Bruce Colony specifically for their alleged bias against him.

“Clearly their decision is already made although they have still gone through city due process to hear our case to improve this corner for the city of Springfield… Again, how are you doing? In terms of simple, it’s not fair!”

Duda listed several quotes from Lebeck and Colony describing his development or development pressures in Springfield generally as follows:

  • A “threat eroding the neighborhood”
  • An “assault” on the residents of University Height
  • An “existential threat” to Springfield
  • Place the inhabitants “in a state of siege”.

Colony said neighborhoods in Springfield were “besieged” by development and referred to neighborhoods facing “an onslaught of character change.”

The comment describing Duda’s development as an “existential threat” comes from public comments, but Lebeck remarked “a kind word” in response to the Springfield resident.

Lebeck also said neighborhoods in Springfield could “erode” if they don’t have neighborhood plans.

“We want to preserve this desirable neighborhood. I love living there,” Lebeck said of University Heights.

“My wife works in the state of Missouri. I work in the county. Some of us choose to live in these older neighborhoods. And I think the fear is that these older neighborhoods, if we don’t have Without a proper plan in place outside of this overall framework that the master plan gives us, these neighborhoods will erode.”

Springfield Planning and Zoning Commission member Chris Lebeck speaks during a meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission at Historic City Hall Thursday, November 17, 2022.

Duda is concerned that Lebeck requested a University Heights neighborhood plan when he is a resident of that neighborhood, and that the commission approved a request for a corridor plan.

“I have to say it’s quite concerning to me as a candidate who has a pending application, to see our city’s P&Z commission of its own volition and at the request of a commissioner who resides in University Heights, asking reviewing a University Heights neighborhood plan – especially right now.

Duda also noted that he “did not receive any feedback or questions from any commissioner” after speaking in public comments, unlike many other speakers.

“I am fed up that such a logical, common sense approach to investment and development in an area sorely lacking in improvements could be rejected by governing bodies who have already decided to vote against my rezoning proposal and development. My company has invested millions of dollars and hopes to invest tens of millions more to make this happen for the much needed purpose of Springfield as a whole,” he wrote.

Duda: Houses only “deterioration of rentals”

In the letter, Duda also defended his project as a whole and stated the inadequacy of retaining the area’s single-family residential zoning designation.

Recently named “The Heights”, the multi-story development of “executive lofts”, restaurants, retail and offices would be built on the northwest corner of Sunshine and National. Residents have expressed concerns about the effect of the development on traffic, the integrity of the neighborhood and a host of other issues.

“I couldn’t imagine living on this street corner: in a house with a bad driveway leading to one of the busiest intersections in town. I would never allow my children to play in the front yard. I would never throw a birthday party (or) a Christmas party – it would be dangerous and impossible,” Duda wrote. “Entering and exiting the aisles poses a threat to the life of anyone residing there.”

That acrimony grew thanks to a series of tense neighborhood meetings — one of which ended after a University Heights resident directed a gender-based swearing at Duda’s wife — and the demolition of an iconic white house at the corner of Sunshine and Springfield streets.

According to him, the other homes he plans to remove for development serve only as “deteriorating rentals that are below market rental rates due to their location and condition”. He argued that the city should have already rezoned the area before buying the properties.

“I believe the City of Springfield unintentionally created this problem. This corner, like the other 3 surrounding corners at this intersection, should have been rezoned for commercial use years ago. The reason this corner is degrading and will continue to deteriorate is because of this huge traffic, congestion, noise, crime and dangerous accessibility.”

Duda argued that the Be Kind & Merciful development will not destroy anyone’s homes or property values. Instead, he said, it will “look and feel like University Heights.”

“It will serve as a pleasant gateway to the remarkable and historic neighborhood of UH – connecting a noisy urban city with a quiet neighborhood. A neighborhood that is far from mirroring the crumbling houses at its (southeast) edge, which is the 2.74 acres that belongs to my company. We want to improve it,” Duda wrote.

After:Developer unveils University Heights plan to neighborhood residents in tense meeting

He further denounced attempts by the neighborhood association and residents of University Heights to oppose the rezoning of properties from their current residential designation.

“I purchased these properties legally. I am the owner and have ownership rights. These homes do not belong to the neighborhood, they belong to me and my business,” he wrote.

In conclusion, he thanked the members of the city council for their “continuing service” to Springfield and asked to sit down with each individually.

“I don’t know how many times I have to ask before I give up… I’m not into politics, I don’t know this game and I don’t want it either. I’m just an investor and developer looking for ‘a positive logical shift.’

Duda’s rezoning application is expected to be submitted to the Planning and Zoning Commission in December.

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