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Thursday, July 30, 2009 02:22 am

Road to nowhere

The new Capitol Avenue doesnt get us where we want to go

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Fifth and Capitol looking west.
PHOTO BY DAVID HINE

Capitol Avenue’s progress toward becoming the capital city’s Champs Elysees has hit a pothole. Completion of the latest phase of rehab work will soon leave the stretch from Seventh to Eleventh improved, but the roughly $17 million that will be needed to finish this prairie Pennsylvania Avenue is nowhere to be found. Capitol from Seventh to the Statehouse at Second and from 11th to 19th will remain just another street unless Congress decides to add the imitation Victorian lamppost industry to banking and car-making among the industries deserving of rescue.

Should we mourn? In a boosterish editorial published last year, the State Journal-Register wrote “For those getting their first look at downtown as they drive westbound toward the Capitol, the improved Capitol Avenue will create a much more memorable and favorable first impression than any existing corridor.”

That it would. The problem is that so few visitors get their first look at downtown as they drive westbound on Capitol Avenue toward the Capitol. For one thing, getting on to Capitol from the interstates on the eastern edge of town is hard to do. Capitol was never intended to be a gateway to the Statehouse, which did not exist when the way was laid out as Market Street.

Because Capitol is not a through street, the caravans of eager westbound tourists imagined by the project’s backers will have to be diverted to it from Clear Lake by way of King Drive and 16th Street, which route affords a fine view of the city’s street maintenance yard. After that they will progress westward (from 18th to Ninth) through a residential district that is memorable only for its shabbiness.

Such a route takes people away not only from Clear Lake but from their own preferred destination. That brings us to the other reason that so few visitors approach the Statehouse via Capitol Avenue: Few visitors come to Springfield to approach the Statehouse. As the SJ-R observed, most downtown visitors start with the Presidential museum and proceed south to the Old State Capitol, Lincoln-Herndon Law Office and Lincoln Home, “often with side trips to the Capitol, Illinois State Museum and Dana-Thomas House.”

Precisely. The Capitol and environs is a side trip. Why then the focus on Capitol as the lodestar for the wandering tourist? Because the ever-generous Mr. Blagojevich promised to pop for much of the $20 million cost. He did so (quoting here from the official press release) to “transform the street into a red carpet to the Statehouse and other famed downtown sites.”

The then-governor never spent enough time in Springfield to learn that the present Statehouse is neither the center of downtown nor the center of the typical tourist’s ambitions. (It might be, but that is another story.) Apart from schoolkids, anyone who doesn’t have business there regards the Statehouse as just a place to take a look at when they still have an hour left on the parking meter.

The new Capitol is no more likely to work as a promenade than as an automobile gateway. A driver focuses on his destination, but a pleasure stroller focuses on the trip. While the Statehouse has a gaudy grandeur (it looks like a wedding cake decorated by a baker paid by the hour) other diversions along Capitol are few, in part because other buildings are few. Readers of a certain tenure in Springfield will join with me in a sigh as she recalls the buildings that once lined Capitol. The Prince Building, the bow-windowed townhouses at Fourth, the similar flats next to Norb Andy’s, the neoclassical Carnegie library at Seventh — these were structures that ina larger city would probably have been used to accommodate professional offices or ground-floor coffee shops and boutiques while the upper levels housed Interesting People. In Springfield such buildings usually can only be remembered.

The State of Illinois tore down the Abraham Lincoln Hotel at Fifth in 1978 as part of the clearing of that block for a parking lot. Arguably that was a mistake, and it was compounded when the new Presidential Museum was not built on the site. Missing such opportunities was by then a tradition in Springfield. The last good planning idea the city fathers had for that area came in 1865. That’s when they proposed building a tomb for the late President on the Mather Block, which is the heart of the modern capitol complex.

Without such an attraction, the reborn Capitol Avenue will be a yellow brick road — actually, brick-patterned asphalt — with no Oz at the end. It is neither the gateway to downtown, nor a gateway to the city. It directs visitors from where they aren’t to a place most of them don’t want to be, and will bore them every step of the way. That’s not close enough even for government work.

James Krohe Jr. has written about urban planning for more than 30 years. Contact him at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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