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Thursday, May 25, 2017 12:33 am

Park-ing problems

The latest Y block plans are revealed

The proposal by John Shafer and Associates would line Capitol and Fifth with four-story buildings containing 92 apartments, with commercial space on the sidewalk. The remaining space would be a courtyard/park the size of about one city block.
ILLUSTRATION John Shafer & Associates, Inc.

 

You know how it goes. A rich family buys an old place in a once-posh neighborhood and starts to fix it up. They’re worried that plans for multi-family apartments in the empty lot across the street will ruin property values, so they try to buy the lot themselves and expand their yard.

That, pretty much, is what is going on at the Y block in downtown Springfield. Bruce and Diane Rauner have made it clear they want the city to build a park on the Y block. Something green. Something fun. Not like Montana, maybe, but nice.

The City of Springfield meanwhile made yet another call for proposals to redevelop the property. The city originally hoped the block might become a sort of instant downtown, with dense housing and shops that might kick-start a residential renaissance while earning tax income for the municipality. A plan for a 200-unit mixed-use apartment block would have done just that, but the city learned that, duh, buildings cost money, so the mayor and everyone started talking about a park instead.

I am reminded of a dear mother of a friend, who filled a closet with toaster ovens and clothes irons she didn’t need because she’d gotten them at such bargain prices.

No surprise then that the latest call to developers from the City of Springfield to redevelop the Y block resulted in four proposals and that three of them make a park their centerpiece. The Rauner-backed North Mansion Y-Block Development Group NFP came up with a block-square park with 12-story clocktower/observation deck and a “wonderwall,” similar to the video tower in Chicago’s Millennium Park. These features have been much discussed, and (in these pages) much derided. (See “More parking downtown?” from Feb. 2, 2017.) Looked at through the parsimonious eye of an alderman, the handsomest thing about the plan is that the Rauners have promised to pay for a lot of it through private donations.

Two of the other proposals offer less fanciful parks. Massie Massie and Associates would transform the south half of the block into a plaza, with Jackson Street converted into a European-style shared street and visually united (through common pavement treatments) with the mansion grounds. John Shafer & Associates’ concept would give us a Jackson Street side graced with a café, shaded plaza, public johns and space for food trucks.

Both of these ideas are good, so good in fact that it would be shame to waste them on the Y block. If the Rauners really want to improve the Capitol’s environs, they would pay to build some version of the Shafer/Massie park across from the Statehouse on the parking lot that has long blighted Monroe Street between First and Spring – that is, if he can come up with a balanced budget for it.

Since the YWCA site was cleared, I’ve heard more than one person remark their surprise at the pleasing vista thus opened across the old Town Branch toward the mansion, whose builders sited it elegantly on the former creekside in 1856. Green makes green, insofar as access to views or green space enhances property values. Might a block of well-tailored green space enhance adjacent property values enough to attract new office or resident projects on the underused land on three sides, projects whose tax takes would justify leaving the Y block unbuilt on?

Maybe, but it seems a long shot in the absence of a thriving downtown job market. Better to turn all of downtown into green space by planting more street trees and pocket parks and genuine green screens to conceal parking lots. Nor would showcasing the mansion this way enhance its tourist appeal. It simply isn’t an important building. If people won’t visit the Old Capitol, the law offices or the Statehouse – and most don’t – they’re not going to visit the building where our Louis Emmersons and John Stelles once dreamed the dreams of kings.

Downtown has not been struggling for so many years because it doesn’t have enough green space. It’s struggled because it doesn’t have enough people. Shafer alone proposes to remedy that by lining Capitol and Fifth with four-story buildings containing 92 apartments, with commercial space on the sidewalk. Assuming the numbers work out (and it is only a concept, not a plan at this stage) the Shafer project would do what the city originally wanted the Y block to do. The Rauner group’s proposal would give the city only a low-cost way to get the Y block off the desk at city hall, and it seems likely to find favor for that reason.

The city council, one hopes, will think very hard about whether it is wise to use precious city resources to help pay for what amounts to a rich man’s folly, especially considering that this particular rich man might no longer live in the city after January 2019. Which raises a question: The Rauners are spiffing up the block like they are trying to enhance the mansion’s sale price. Is it possible that no one has told them that the house isn’t theirs?

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

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