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Thursday, May 19, 2005 08:48 pm

Medical District worries

art2079

Last week’s first of three public planning meetings on the comprehensive plan for the Springfield Medical District drew a big crowd and a healthy discussion. The professionals from RTKL Associates Inc., which has offices in Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, and other major cities, gave a nice presentation with interesting facts that they have accumulated so far.

For example, half of the land in the mile-square district on the near north side of Springfield is devoted to the automobile, primarily in streets and parking lots. The implication is that the plan, to be delivered later this year, will propose less land area devoted to cars, particularly surface parking lots. The planners pointed out that while 4,000 people live in the area, some 12,000 people work there, and not many who work there live there. The implication is that it would be nice if more of the people who work at St. John’s, Memorial, and SIU lived nearby. The planners pointed out that the Medical District is bisected to its detriment by the Third Street railroad tracks, so I’m guessing they will join those advocating relocating the rail corridor to 11th Street. And they pointed out that while north/south street access is good, there aren’t many through east-west streets, thereby putting an extra traffic burden on North Grand Avenue, Carpenter Street, and Madison Street. Hmm — I wonder where they’re going to propose a new east-west street or two?

It sure is nice to get some extra attention to these old neighborhoods around the hospitals, where some of us have been laboring for years with little noticeable support from the medical community. When planners from Chicago and Dallas say this area ought to become an “extension of downtown and the new presidential library” it makes our hearts flutter. When they speak of “linkages” between the medical facilities and the neighborhoods, we get excited, even without knowing exactly what linkages are. They ask if it wouldn’t be a good idea to have more restaurants in the area, and we say, sure, let’s have more restaurants.

It was only after the large meeting broke into discussion groups that I picked up some worrisome hints. It started when the Chicago-based planner who led the session didn’t know the name of McClernand School, calling it “McClellan,” the wrong Civil War general. It made me wonder how much time he’d actually spent here. He said he’d talked to some of the teachers, who told him the school has a big turnover of students during the school year, making it difficult to teach them. The planner said some of this problem will go away once the area begins to stabilize and “re-gentrify.” I wasn’t sure whether he meant the problem would go away or that the low-income students would go away.

It may not be significant, but after the planner asked the audience for its goals for the neighborhood, a friend said it should be a goal to preserve and enhance racial and ethnic diversity. After he dutifully wrote it to go up on the wall, the planner placed diversity under the heading of “concepts” rather than “goals.” When participants said the “perception of crime” is a problem for the area, I suggested that planning should be done based on facts, not just perceptions. The distinction seemed lost on the planner. A woman said the presence of a homeless shelter in the neighborhood adds to the perception of crime; the planner didn’t bother to say that homelessness and crime are two separate things. Yet when a North End resident said attention should be given to preserving historic buildings, the planner was quick to say — ominously I thought — that not all old buildings are historic.

Nobody wants crime. Not all old buildings

need to be preserved. The high “mobility” rate at McClernand and other low-income schools is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. And though “re-gentrification” is a scary way to put it, attracting more homeowners to the Medical District neighborhoods would be a plus. The planners cleverly got the public involved by asking us to place green sticky dots on pictures we liked of other cities, and red sticky dots on ugly pictures. But unless the process goes beyond sticky dots to sticky issues, a great opportunity will have been wasted. Unless the discussion can dig into the serious issues of race, class, poverty, and diversity, all we’ll get is a plan for moving low-income residents out.

There is still time in the planning process to change the concept from a medical district to a “health” district, where there are healthy relationships between blacks and whites, rich and poor. Planners might encourage the hospitals and medical community to broaden their mission into shaping a healthy neighborhood, and a better life for their current neighbors.

Fletcher Farrar is a resident of the area designated as the Medical District.

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