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Thursday, Sept. 8, 2005 01:39 am

Can they make MacArthur Grand again?

Why neighbors beat back blight while awaiting positive news

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The Esquire Theatre was brand new, and several other businesses had located near it on Springfield's burgeoning southwest side. "South Grand and West Grand District is Rapidly Developing," read a headline in the Illinois State Journal of Jan. 28, 1938. The greatest excitement surrounded the new Piggly Wiggly store, where Aunt Jemima herself would make pancakes for patrons on opening day. Four years later, the City Council proudly renamed West Grand Avenue for Gen. Douglas MacArthur, a decision, the council said, that "received immediate enthusiastic approval of patriotic citizens."

Just like the old soldier, MacArthur Boulevard faded away in the eyes of residents who lived on it and near it. Traffic and businesses took over homes one by one; by 1970, residents were fighting plans to remove the island at MacArthur and South Grand Avenue to speed up traffic flow. "It's a shame that we have to always go with the idea that we have to move traffic a little faster," complained Walter Simhauser at a public hearing.

The residents lost that battle and many others, and MacArthur south of South Grand descended into urban uglification, becoming an all-commercial jungle of pavement, parking lots, and signs. The vacant Esquire and Kmart buildings contribute to the blight. Still, things could be worse, and the best signals that MacArthur's fortunes may be rising are the businesses you don't see along that troubled road. Residents of neighborhoods to the west and east have organized to defeat zoning requests for developments they say would have made traffic and noise problems worse.

"That fight has to continue forever and ever," says Ward 7 Ald. Judy Yeager, who has stood in solidarity with the neighbors. "We have to be vigilant, and we have to be consistent."

One of the MacArthur vigilantes is Doug Dougherty, who lives on Dial Court, the first street west of MacArthur. He's been battling adverse zoning changes almost since moving there 24 years ago. At first he was more willing to compromise with developers who made promises to neighbors in exchange for withdrawal of opposition. But he and his cohorts have hardened, as promise after promise has gone unfulfilled. In 1984 Dougherty did battle with the late George Kerasotes, who tore down several homes, some without city permission, for Esquire parking lots and then failed to screen them as he had promised to do. About five years ago, Dougherty and other Dial Court residents won a promise from the Standard Mutual Insurance Co. that the company would take steps to prevent cars from its expanded parking lot from exiting onto Dial Court, but the traffic still spills onto the residential street. So Dougherty has had it with compromise: "We don't want our neighborhood to be slowly eroded away. We want to avoid death by a thousand cuts."

Last year, when Harper Oil announced plans for a big gas station and convenience store on one of the Esquire parking lots on MacArthur, Dougherty took petitions door to door for blocks around and discussed with neighbors how the business wasn't a good fit. After neighbors turned out in big numbers at a zoning hearing to voice their opposition, the plans were dropped. Earlier this year, a request by Prairie Farms to expand its trucking facility encountered similar opposition from neighbors, who were concerned about trucks' backing across four lanes of MacArthur traffic. The zoning case is pending.

"We get accused of being rigid," says Dougherty, who, several times burned, doesn't completely disagree. "We just think there should be no more conditional-use permits, no more variances, no further zoning changes."

Some bright spots have appeared on MacArthur, such as the handsome new Urgent Care building and the new Walgreens, both of which have nice landscaping in accordance with former Mayor Karen Hasara's beautification ordinance. The well-run (and full) Town and Country Shopping Center and the Town and Country Bank continue to be strong anchors for the area. And neighbors have given enthusiastic support to the proposed Cherry Grove Shoppes, which would bring 45,000 square feet of specialty retail shops in a variety of small buildings to the abandoned Esquire property. Developer Todd Smith of the Garrison Group said last week that his company is negotiating with the Illinois Department of Transportation over street requirements. "We have strong interest from prospective tenants," Smith says, "but we don't want to commit to them until we see how the ingress and egress are going to work."

If it comes through, Cherry Grove could set an architecturally pleasing and quiet retail tone for MacArthur's future and make the battles against gas stations and truck terminals feel all the more worthwhile. Dougherty acknowledges that neighbors have been so busy reacting to negative proposals, they haven't spent much time planning what they'd like to see. "There has been no real vision of what MacArthur could look like 15 years from now," he says.

That can be the next step.

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