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Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012 05:51 am

What a difference a year makes?

At MacArthur Park, it depends on whom you ask

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Neatly kept landscaping greets visitors to MacArthur Park, but city officials say plenty of work remains.
PHOTO BY BRUCE RUSHTON

A little more than a year after the start of a housing inspection blitz, nearly all of the MacArthur Park apartment complex in Springfield has been inspected.

City officials acknowledge some progress at the 188-unit complex near Jerome known for blight and crime. But they’re not satisfied after inspecting 38 four-plexes since Aug. 5 of last year, with 10 buildings left to go.

John Sadowski, plans examiner for the Springfield building and zoning department, characterized the complex’s progress as “slower than expected.” The city has been conducting inspections in waves of five or six buildings every six weeks or so, and Sadowski said the city has been finding “pretty much the same number of violations and type of violations we’ve had in the past.”

The last round of inspections on June 29 resulted in the city sending notices to the apartment owner to register one of the five buildings visited because it was vacant and a notice that the other four had at least six violations each and must be registered if problems weren’t fixed within 60 days. So far, Sadowski said, the city has issued certificates of occupancy to 10 four-plexes that had been found deficient.

“It’s a mixed bag,” said Ward 7 Ald. Joe McMenamin, who pushed for a get-tough strategy last year. “The outer appearance of the buildings has improved. The appearance of the grounds has improved. … There’s still an abundance of police calls stemming from the apartments. The time to correct violations is beyond the deadlines even set by the apartment owner himself.”

Don Craven, attorney for Granite Investments, the Madison County-based firm that owns MacArthur Park, said work is progressing as planned.

“I think the schedule that we have presented to them, and have not heard that we’re not meeting, calls for a turnaround of one building every two weeks, which is four units every 10 days,” Craven said. “My public-school math tells me we’re turning around one apartment every two-and-a-half days.”

Springfield police records show that officers visited the complex more than 400 times in the year after the phased inspections began and the city demanded improvements. But the records also show that crime appears to be going down. Twenty of the visits were categorized as “premise checks” with nothing untoward found, and scores of others, including responses to mysterious 911 calls and complaints about noise, resulted in no evidence of a crime.

During the first five months of this year serious crime at MacArthur Park decreased, according to police, who reported a drop of 41 percent compared with the first five months of 2011. There were three sexual assaults between January and May in 2011 and none during the same time period this year; burglaries dropped from 10 to four, robberies went from two to one, assaults and batteries dropped from seven to six. Thefts remained constant at five. All told, the department reports crimes against people and property dropped from 27 cases during the first five months of 2011 to 16 this year.

“We think the number of police calls is down,” Craven said. “Many of the police calls are initiated by our staff in order to solve problems we note on the premises.”

McMenamin, however, said that he believes fewer people are living at the complex since the Springfield Housing Authority, under pressure from the city, stopped issuing new Section 8 housing vouchers for the complex last year.

“Less population usually means less conflict and fewer police calls in general,” McMenamin said.

Craven said that the complex has offered to provide the police department a free substation at MacArthur Park, furnished, equipped and with all utilities paid. The city would be free to staff it – or not staff it – as the city sees fit, he said. After meeting with police officials to determine their needs, complex managers have drawn up a rent-free lease agreement which is now at the city’s legal department awaiting action, he said.

“This is a no-cost lease for 10 years to put a police presence right in the middle of MacArthur Park,” Craven said.

McMenamin said that priority should be on housing code violations, not a police substation.

“If you address the housing code violations, then you improve the housing environment and you create standards that improve social behavior,” McMenamin said. “We have to be careful about tying up scarce city resources for a landlord who has shown a disregard for housing code standards.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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