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Thursday, March 27, 2014 12:01 am

A developing story

City acquiring downtown land

The former YWCA building near the governor’s mansion may or may not be demolished.



A courts complex. A condo building. A museum.

A parking lot and the former YWCA building near the governor’s mansion that together consume a large city block have seen a lot of proposals come and go over the years. Now, the city of Springfield is close to becoming owner of the property that downtown boosters say could be key to a new tax increment finance district and continuing efforts to revitalize downtown.

The city council last week voted to spend slightly more than $1.5 million to acquire the vacant parcel, now being used as a parking lot, from the state of Illinois. The city is also close to closing a deal to acquire the YWCA building for $25,000, the amount owed in delinquent taxes, according to Mike Farmer, director of the city planning and economic development office.

How big is this deal?

“Huge,” says Victoria Ringer, executive director of Downtown Springfield, Inc. “Huge, huge, huge. We believe that that block is going to set the tone for future (downtown) development.”

Private investors bought the YWCA building in 2007, but plans to convert the structure to condominiums crashed the following year, when the city council rejected a proposal to spend $2.5 million in TIF money to help with the project.

The city has had its eye on the vacant land since the 1970s, when the Hotel Abraham Lincoln, which had occupied the spot, was demolished and the property ended up in the hands of the state, which once considered building a courts complex on the land. The hotel-turned-parking-lot was also once mulled as a site for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

“It’s a significant block that for 38 years has been way underutilized,” Farmer says.

Prying the property loose from the state wasn’t easy, according to Ward 6 Ald. Cory Jobe, who credits state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Staunton, U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin and Gov. Pat Quinn for helping convince players to declare the property surplus so the city could buy it. Three of the four leaders in the general assembly had to agree, Jobe says, and three ultimately did. He would not say who was the odd person out.

“I probably shouldn’t comment on that,” says Jobe, whose ward includes the property. “I may need their help down the road.”

There is precious little detail on what will happen to the property. The dilapidated YWCA building may come down, boosters say, or it may not. The city might gift the property if a developer comes up with a sufficiently tantalizing proposal, or it might end up selling the land for development. To hear the dreamers talk, you’d think the property was 20 acres in size instead of just one large block bordered by Capitol Avenue and Fourth, Fifth and Jackson streets. Possibilities include office space, retail development and residential uses, all with a health splashy of green space, Ringer, Farmer and Jobe say.

“It’s a blank canvas, an open slate for us to do something unique,” Jobe said. “In terms of downtown revitalization, I think it’s the most important block since the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum was built.”

Ringer said that she would like to see two canvases for developers to ponder, one that includes preservation and renovation of the YWCA building and another that would allow a start-from-scratch approach with vacant land.

Whatever happens, the land needs to generate money to boost the property’s value within a new tax increment finance district that city leaders are considering for downtown, Jobe said. The current TIF district is set to expire in 2016, and if the city establishes a replacement district, any increase in property value on land within the district would be set aside for redevelopment and revitalization projects inside the district’s borders.

The city will establish an advisory committee to recommend what should be done with the land. The city council will make the final decision and invite the private sector to submit development plans. Until then, city officials have talked about relocating downtown events such as the Soho Music Festival to the site.

“Everything is on the table,” Ringer said. “This is, hopefully, going to be the crown jewel.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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