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Thursday, July 24, 2014 12:01 am

Forging a new path

Springfield’s Jackson Street could get a makeover

An artist’s rendering of how a revamped pedestrian-friendly Jackson Street might appear, from Fifth Street looking west, with the Executive Mansion grounds on the left.


In the 1820s, when Springfield was still changing from a sleepy frontier settlement to a bustling metropolis, a small creek ran through what is now the city’s downtown.  

Nearly 200 years later, that creek still flows, albeit underground as the Town Branch sewer. Today that creek may be one of the keys to a project which could transform one of the city’s oldest streets.

The Historic Preservation Fund, part of the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln, hopes to turn Jackson Street in downtown Springfield from an underused shortcut of a street into a pathway linking the Illinois State Capitol with Abraham Lincoln’s house. In the process, Jackson Street could become a destination of its own.

History’s mysteries
Zimri Enos, a prominent engineer, lawyer and surveyor who lived in Springfield from about 1823 to 1907, wrote in his memoir of the city that a grove of young trees once stood in the area that is now bounded by Third and Sixth streets on the east and west with Jackson and Cook streets on the north and south. The Illinois Executive Mansion now sits where that grove once stood, facing Jackson Street between Fourth and Fifth streets.

If not for a quirk of history, Jackson Street would likely be a more prominent roadway today. The relevant part of Jackson runs from the Lincoln Home National Historic Site on Seventh Street to the Illinois State Capitol on Second Street, connecting two popular tourist spots, with the governor’s mansion along the way.

However, Kent Massie, principal planner of the Springfield architecture firm Massie Massie and Associates, says the existence of the Town Branch Creek (and later the sewer) influenced how Jackson Street was laid out and how the land adjacent to it was platted in the 1830s. 

A view of Jackson from Fourth Street, looking east. A plaza for concerts and outdoor gatherings, shown at left, could be built over the corner of the YWCA block where the Town Branch sewer flows underground. A decorative arch, left, could be built from stones salvaged from the demolished old Lincoln Library.

Jackson Street would have crossed the Town Branch Creek between Fifth and Sixth Streets, so instead of building a bridge over the creek and continuing the road, Jackson Street was abruptly terminated between Fifth and Sixth. That land now belongs to the Illinois Association of Realtors and was never a public right-of-way. Preventing that section from becoming part of the street almost 200 years ago likely contributed significantly to the fact that Jackson Street now has little traffic and mostly serves as access to the handful of buildings that face it.

With guidance from the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce, the Historic Preservation Fund hired Massie to create a plan for redeveloping Jackson Street, and although the plan hasn’t been publicly released, Massie’s final report was completed in June. Illinois Times has obtained permission to release details of the plan.

Bob Gray of Springfield has been chewing on the idea of a “Jackson Street trail” for about 20 years. A longtime community organizer, Gray is the brains behind the Citizens Club of Springfield, and he serves on the board of the Historic Preservation Fund. Gray and a handful of other civic-minded Springfield citizens founded the Historic Preservation Fund within the Community Foundation in 2010 with just $400 left over from a celebration of the 40th anniversary of reconstructing the Illinois Old State Capitol. The fund has now reached between $40,000 and $50,000, Gray says, and has given out two grants, the second of which paid for Massie’s Jackson Street plan.

In the 1990s, Gray and others put together a proposal to renovate Jackson Street, but the proposal never came to fruition. This time might be different. With the financial backing of the Historic Preservation Fund and the networking capital of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce, Massie’s plan offers an artistic but practical design for what is currently an underused and lifeless strip. Additionally, the Third Street rail project and the redevelopment of the YWCA block offer once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to integrate three projects with one another.

Block by block    
Much of Massie’s design is simple street rehabilitation and landscaping to blend the appearance of Jackson Street with the Capitol building and other historic structures. However, a couple of unrelated projects nearby may dictate certain aspects of the Jackson Street plan.

The Third Street rail corridor crosses Jackson Street behind Lincoln Tower apartments and the Illinois State Bar Association headquarters. The rail line is scheduled to be relocated onto the existing 10th Street rail corridor by around 2020 if funding is found, and it’s possible the Third Street line could become a bike and pedestrian path through the city. 

Obed and Isaac’s Microbrewery is one of two successful businesses on Jackson Street owned by Court and Karen Conn of Springfield. Their success has project planners hopeful for more energy on the rest of Jackson Street.

If that happens, Jackson Street would become a route directly from the Third Street path to both the Lincoln home and the Capitol. In the meantime, the Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the Third Street rail line, plans to close the crossing at Jackson Street soon, so Massie proposes erecting decorative walls on both sides of the crossing. The walls would offer backstops to visually separate the street from the closed crossing, and under Massie’s plan, the barriers would be removed if the Third Street rail line does become a bike path.

Between Fourth and Fifth
Between Fourth and Fifth streets, Jackson Street is paved with bricks, bordering the governor’s mansion and the shuttered YWCA building. Massie envisions repaving the road with permeable pavement and adding cisterns to help relieve flooding, while extending the sidewalks and adding decorative planters to encourage pedestrian traffic. The street would remain accessible to vehicles most of the time, but it could be closed off during events. Massie would also like to see the mansion restore its original entrance on Jackson Street.

The City of Springfield recently purchased the block containing the abandoned YWCA with hopes of attracting new development on what was formerly a state employee parking lot. Although no plans have been announced, ideas have been floated for new apartments, businesses, green space and a parking garage. Massie hopes to blend the Jackson Street project with whatever development happens in that block.

Bob Gray says the redevelopment of the YWCA block could bring momentum to the Jackson Street project.

“What happens on that block is going to be very, very important for Springfield,” he said.

With the Town Branch sewer running beneath Jackson Street and part of the YWCA block, Massie says it makes sense to carve off the section above the sewer for use as a green space and potential concert venue. Constructing a building over the sewer would likely pose an engineering challenge, he says, and digging below it for parking would probably lead to flooding.

Concept plan for Sixth Street to Seventh Street along the Jackson Street corridor.


Instead he proposes a plaza. “The small triangular plaza created by the diagonal walkway would be a nice urban space for relaxing or, at times, for speeches, performances and special events,” Massie said in his report. “Since the area is low in elevation compared to the surrounding areas, the proposed lawn area surrounded by broad steps can serve as a temporary storm water storage basin during major rain events.”

Between Fifth and Sixth
The headquarters of the Illinois Association of Realtors faces Fifth Street and includes the strip of land that would have been Jackson Street if not for the Town Branch creek. The Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce and the Historic Preservation Fund have approached the Realtors association about renovating that strip to match the rest of the plan and allowing the public to walk through, but no agreement has been finalized. The Realtors association only recently acquired the land and uses it for parking, so any agreement would likely need to provide for at least some parking.

Association spokesman Jon Broadbooks says the organization needs more details before it can make a decision on the project.

“IAR’s membership is always looking for ways to improve communities,” Broadbooks said.  “Certainly, this project could play a role in the betterment of the downtown area. It would be premature to state that we are on board with a project of this scope until we learn much more. The property was purchased initially to provide a buffer zone around IAR’s headquarters. Any project IAR would be involved in would have to be closely reviewed to see if it meets the association’s needs and those of the community.”

If the Realtors’ block does become part of the project, Massie suggests reconfiguring or removing a building which used to be a drive-up bank east of the Realtors’ building. The old bank is currently used for storage. Massie says that strip of land could be redesigned to allow some parking spaces to remain, and he would like to see historical markers along the way.

Between Sixth and Seventh
East of the Realtors’ lot, between Sixth and Seventh streets, sits Obed and Isaac’s Microbrewery and Wm. Van’s Coffee House, two well-liked businesses owned by Court and Karen Conn of Springfield. Christ Church Episcopal sits across Jackson Street from the Conns’ restaurants.

Concept plan for Fourth Street to Fifth Street, with a view of a proposed triangle plaza on the southwest corner of the block newly purchased by the City of Springfield. Planners suggest restoring the original entrance to the Executive Mansion grounds at mid-block.


Massie’s plan calls for widening the sidewalks on that block and adding decorative accents like planters. He suggests that closing the street during events would work well with the Conns’ existing outdoor café environment, and it would have very little effect on traffic because Jackson Street ends at the National Historic Site on Seventh Street.

Paul O’Shea, who serves as chairman of the Historic Preservation Fund and as planning and design coordinator for the City of Springfield, says the Conns’ businesses have brought “vitality” to Jackson Street.

“If you can get that same type of energy expanded into the YWCA block, I think you start to create a much larger, impressive area,” he said.

O’Shea says it makes sense to upgrade Jackson Street now because the idea has been tossed around for decades, and several planning studies have suggested similar projects. One study in particular, the Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team (RUDAT) in 2002 identified the ongoing Capitol Avenue beautification project as a priority for Springfield, but noted that a similar Jackson Street project should be pursued as a secondary priority once Capitol Avenue is finished.

A flexible space
Massie’s design seeks to not only beautify Jackson Street, but also to make it into a possible venue for festivals and other events. Doing so would ease the stress on Springfield’s downtown during major events, which usually require closing off thoroughfares like Fifth and Sixth streets downtown. It would also offer an alternative to holding festivals on Capitol Avenue, which currently has the only underpass on the Third Street rail line in downtown. Massie and the Historic Preservation Fund hope to use the project to accentuate some of Springfield’s historic buildings while updating the look and function of an underutilized street.

One thing Massie’s plan does not include is a cost estimate. He says there are far too many variables in play – especially the future of the Third Street rail line, the Realtors association lot and the YWCA block – to even ballpark a figure. However, he says the cost of adding signs, planters and permeable paving will be easy to determine once a specific design is chosen.

Funding for the project is uncertain, as well. Although no cost has been assigned, a project of this scope typically requires millions of dollars – far more than the Historic Preservation Fund currently has on hand. Massie says some of the cost could be defrayed by federal grants for sewer upgrades, while the City of Springfield might be able to access a separate grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency open to state capitals interested in developing “green infrastructure.”

Bob Gray notes that current flooding issues with the Town Branch sewer need to be addressed anyway, so that problem could become an opportunity.

“In the process, we could create a gorgeous little area,” he said. “We think it has potential to be a very nice addition to what we’ve been trying to do downtown.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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