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Thursday, Sept. 23, 2004 01:09 pm

Community by design


The weekend was full of neighborhood moments. Friday evening we walked from our house a couple of blocks, past children skipping rope on the sidewalk, for walleye sandwiches at Suzie-Q's. We ran into several neighbors and friends, as we always do there. On Saturday I played uncle to a 3-year-old at the park across the street. He likes to walk up the slide after taking off his shoes for good barefoot traction. Sunday I walked three blocks over to Edwards Place, the historic mansion where the Springfield Art Association draws people from all over town to its Fine Crafts Fair. Many who bought pie at the Enos Park Neighborhood Improvement Associationbooth told us how happy they are to see the old neighborhood coming back.

People love the idea of neighborhoods. They may live in a sterile car-dependent subdivision now, but they remember when they walked to school or walked to the store for a loaf of bread. It's not just nostalgia but also practicality that has brought a whole new movement to urban design. Some call it neotraditionalism, others "new urbanism." Architects, developers, and planners meet in conventions to discuss how to build new subdivisions and even new towns around the concepts of "mixed use" and "walkable." They're trying to build community into communities, with front porches not too far from sidewalks, so that people can greet their neighbors. Across the country, new subdivisions are being built on old ideas that work, such as street trees for shade, service alleys and garages in the back, and streets too narrow to drive fast on. One reason people walk is to see interesting people and houses, so diversity of incomes and architecture is encouraged to enrich both landscape and life. People will walk more if they have someplace to walk to, so shops and cafés are encouraged in residential areas. Small parks add beauty and places to gather.

The folks at the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission are tuned in to these new/old concepts in urban design and did their best to allow for them in Springfield's latest comprehensive plan, adopted in 2001. For example, areas for new residential subdivisions are all labeled "mixed density," allowing apartments and duplexes to be built among single-family homes. Small areas of green are colored in on the map to encourage parks in new residential developments. In its administration of the subdivision ordinance, the planning staff encourages developers to innovate by incorporating open space or trails. Perhaps the lost lots could be compensated for by having houses clustered closer together or built closer to the street. So far, however, new urbanism and pedestrian-friendly development aren't catching on in Springfield. "It is difficult to ask a developer to risk his money by trying something different," says Susan Poludniak, senior planner with SSCRPC. "That's especially true when you know if you do something conventional you'll make money."

With no new neighborhoods being built, the comprehensive plan and the planners behind it do their best to protect the old. They do this primarily by trying to stop strip commercial development in high-traffic residential areas. "You can have nice houses on busy streets," says Poludniak, but she notes the lack of success zoning has had along North Grand and MacArthur boulevards and parts of Sangamon Avenue. The city zoning administrator gets 3,500 building permit requests a year, many asking for zoning changes or variances. The Springfield Planning and Zoning Commission, constantly bombarded with requests for exceptions or changes to the rules, does its work conscientiously. Last week the commission spent more than a half-hour deliberating the case of a garage on Taylor Avenue built 18 inches taller than the ordinance allows. It finally allowed the garage to stand tall. Then the commission painstakingly considered dozens of changes to loosen zoning regulations, proposed by the Capital Area Association of Realtors and negotiated with Mayor Tim Davlin. These are things such as increasing the size of allowable signs, increasing the size of office buildings next to residential areas, and making it easier for pharmacies and banks to get approval for drive-up windows near residential areas. Nearly all of the changes were approved and sent on to the City Council for final action.

None of these changes is terrible. All seem reasonable when considered one by one. As long as planners and zoning officials are entirely reactive, there is little hope for anything but a slow erosion of zoning protections.

What's missing are proactive city leaders, planners, and developers who can paint a vision of a well-designed city, then implement the policies to make it real. Civic pride, beauty, and community are the answers to sprawl. Springfield built neighborhoods 100 years ago. It can do that again.

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