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Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016 12:21 am

None of your business

Is the city smart enough to pull off the Y block deal?

Rendering from a 2007 project by U of I architecture students envisioned mixed-use development on the YWCA block.

 

How embarrassing. The City of Springfield finds itself in the same bind as the young swain who, wooing a sophisticated lovely, invites her to a posh dinner only to realize at the end of the meal that he doesn’t have the money to pay the tab.

Attentive readers will know of the hoped-for redevelopment of the Y block downtown. The experienced Indianapolis design firm of Flaherty & Collins has proposed to fill the block with 200 apartments, street-level retail space, off-street parking and green space. It would be just the sort of mixed-used, medium-rise project that has enlivened Illinois suburban downtowns beyond counting.

Mayor Jim Langfelder, however, has been quoted as saying that at 200 units the Flaherty & Collins plan would be “too dense” for Springfield. This was a puzzlement. Dense is the whole point. The infrastructure in that part of town can support a building that size, and the more people who can be housed on that block the better it is for downtown, for the City of Springfield and (trust me on this) for the residents of the project. I suspect that the mayor meant to say was that it was too big – not for the city’s rental market but for the market to which Langfelder has to sell the project, namely the city council.

The Y block will not be an easy lot to build on. Parking garages are not cheap, and to save the Y the firm will have to gut that historic building and build a new building inside it. In order for the firm still to be able to offer market-rate rentals, the city will have to sweeten the deal by kicking in an estimated $17 million.

Is seventeen mill to create at a stroke (quoting from the city’s request for proposals) “a modern, engaging urbanscape” that will be “a new and vibrant addition to downtown . . . creating a sense of place within the unique historic fabric of Springfield’s growing downtown culture” a bad deal? I don’t know, and I suspect that the city doesn’t know either. The mayor at first wanted to bring in Stantec, a national consulting firm, to guide the process for selecting a developer, but the idea was nixed by the Gang of Ten and members of the city’s Economic Development Commission who disdained as useless advice from yet one more outside consultant.

I’m not sure how they came to that conclusion. The last time the city took the advice of an outsider on a downtown project of this scale was when it partnered successfully with the St. Louis firm of McCormack Baron to build Lincoln Square, which in the 1980s rejuvenated the block bound by Fifth and Sixth and Adams and Monroe and added 84 first-class apartments to the downtown housing stock. In every other downtown project since in which the city relied on its own staff, the city has been out-bargained.

Aldermen’s official concerns were about the consultant’s bill (which would have been much less than one percent of the total project cost). Reading between the lines, they wanted the work done by “people who know Springfield,” which in plain English means people who know to open the door when insiders start knocking.

Developers always go big with their initial proposals for projects of this sort, knowing that they are likely to get bargained down, and the city is talking about doing just that. But it is impossible to imagine that Flaherty & Collins will be able to rejig the project to match the ambitions of the developer with the miserly means of the city. And remember that reducing its scale will reduce costs, but it also raises the costs per unit, which will be bad for the developer. And it will achieve less, which will be bad for the city.

While knowledge of our town is useful in a project of this kind, developers with knowledge only of our town are not. In a commentary that appeared last December in the Springfield Business Journal, Catherine O’Connor, formerly of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency’s Local Government Services Division, wrapped that decision in a pretty bow when she wrote that the council clearly thought it important “to give local developers, designers and planning professionals, with interest in adaptive reuse and knowledge of our town, a chance to build a shared vision incrementally.”

As for that shared vision, you need only look at the proposal of Springfield’s Seth Molen Construction for the old YWCA building. The east half would be converted into eight apartments; the west half of the building would be leveled to make – sigh – a surface parking lot. That would leave open more than three-fourths of the site, which is plenty of room for a nice strip mall and maybe a drive-though taco joint.

I suspect that the aldermen rejected outside advice not because it was bad advice but because it was outside advice. Loyal Springfieldians are sick of slickers coming into town to tell them what rubes they are. Among them are a majority of aldermen, who collectively remind me of the male who always insists, “We don’t need to call anybody. I can fix it myself,” just before he floods the bathroom.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.

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