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Thursday, Aug. 6, 2009 03:06 am

My hope for downtown

Parking is not the answer

For too many aspiring downtown revitalizers, the path to its resurrection and consequent vibrancy is to follow the mantra of car preservation as opposed to building preservation. The illusory necessity for users of downtown services to park their car at the restaurant’s dining table or their office desk or next to their apartment’s bed has, over the last three decades, resulted in the obliteration of many buildings.

The eruption in the late 1970s of the new-style retail throughout the United States that resulted in the massive exodus of most of the downtown stores when White Oaks was built on the (then) western edge of Springfield, was partly triggered by consumers’ urge for free and easy parking — no meters to stuff with coins and no geeing and hawing into parallel parking at the curb. Owners of downtown buildings losing their retail tenants to White Oaks quickly put two and two together to equal four — or as it turned out, to equal zero — and soon began to raze adjacent buildings in an effort to provide mall-type parking for their office tenants and shoppers.

It was during this period of chaotic urban change in the late 1970s that I inherited the Pasfield building at the corner of Sixth and Monroe where Merrill Lynch has been ensconced since 1983. Current wisdom for revitalization then and, amazingly still is, was to rent the upper floors to artists for studio space or convert them to market-rate apartments for people with enough disposable income to support the local stores and eateries.

As I walked through its two empty upper floors — the first floor had a drugstore — I could see the sky! Not only was this a shock, as the building was being “managed” by a local bank trust department, but because the much heftier cost of rehab would rule out artists’ studios. So I made a quick decision to follow plan B, convert the third floor to market rate apartments and renovate the second-floor office space. This was done before the city started the TIF program under Michael Houston in 1983, thus the cost was covered by money borrowed from a bank and our equity. My husband and I rehabbed the whole building and immediately the apartments filled with mostly legislators and lobbyists who didn’t know downtown was in an awful downward spiral, nor did I tell them. After almost 30 years of rehabbing a total of five buildings along Sixth and Seventh Streets, demand for apartment living, always resulting in full occupancy, has soared and I get calls non-stop throughout the week.

Meanwhile, however, it’s extremely frustrating to have to tell the callers that all the maintained buildings downtown are full with no immediate prospect of new ones becoming available. So here’s the thrust of my rant: while I realize that office rents are higher than apartment rents, there’s no demand for office space and hasn’t been even long before Blago sent the state offices to Chicago. In addition, the TIF financial incentives will end in 2016; having already been renewed once, they cannot be extended again. It is, therefore, imperative that downtown building owners access TIF (call Economic Development at 789-2377) to rescue their buildings from self-induced blight and fill them full of rent-paying apartment tenants who will eat at the restaurants and buy from the retailers.

And the parking problem? Where possible, apartment tenants must park their cars behind the architectural wall of the rehabbed buildings. If no space exists back there, they must grit their teeth and pay to park in the numerous ramps throughout the downtown — most of them within a block of central downtown buildings. I discovered that most people, once they decide to live down here, have already dealt with the parking problem in their minds.

Other cities have done it, why can’t or won’t we?

Carolyn Oxtoby was born in Springfield and has lived here except for four years at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Her husband, the late Robert Oxtoby, was an attorney.

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