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Thursday, Aug. 6, 2009 01:23 pm

Springfield is no good at gateways

Road to nowhere, part II

Rendering of a passenger rail station proposed for 18th and Capitol in Myron West’s city plan for Springfield, published in 1925.

The now-stalled beautification project to transform Capitol Avenue into a ceremonial gateway to the Statehouse and Lincoln sites confirms what longtime residents already know, which is that Springfield is not especially good at gateways. Several disgraced governors ago, the gateway to the city from the airport, Walnut Street north of North Grand, was dressed up as the J. David Jones Parkway. The result owed more to the parking lot than the park. (For a while, the medians were covered with Astro-Turf.)

The terrain in that part of Springfield’s north side offered the possibility of a genuinely handsome green gateway. Unfortunately, achieving it would have required land use and building controls to prevent such scenic corridors from being littered with trailer-like metal sheds which are to Springfield what red-tiled roofs and stucco are to Spain. When it comes to a choice between growing green and folding green, the latter will always be preferred.

The only thing monumental about Monument Avenue, the gateway to Oak Ridge Cemetery and Lincoln’s tomb from North Grand, is its name. It is distinguished from a thousand identical streets by a few planters and a sign on Ninth Street bearing a phrase from Lincoln’s House Divided speech. It says, “It willbecome all one thing…” which for a long time I assumed referred to the city’s tendency to permit commercial land uses anywhere in town. It is at least a symbolically Springfieldian gateway, what with Lincoln at one end and a strip mall on the other.

Clear Lake Avenue is the gateway into the city from the busy eastside interstate exits. The Presidential museum’s Web site sensibly instructs visitors to come via the westbound lanes of the Clear Lake/Madison-Jefferson one-way couple. That allows drivers eager to be amazed to move directly from I-55 to the parking garage on Sixth Street between Madison and Mason streets.

Unhappily for proud Springfieldians, inviting visitors to the city to come in via Clear Lake is like asking your dinner guests to come in through the garage. That’s why Mayor Tim Davlin targeted it in 2004 as a “Springfield Green” project. He should have targeted it with smart munitions, since making Springfield look green by planting flowers along Clear Lake is like trying to making the Blagojevich administration look competent by straightening the magazines in his office waiting room.

People come to Springfield by rail too. Springfield’s first official city plan, drawn up by Myron West of Chicago’s American Park Builders at the request of a reformist Zoning and Plan Commission in 1924, proposed construction of a new passenger rail station at 18th Street and Capitol. The new facility would replace the two or three rail stations through which many visitors then entered and left the capital city. West’s version of Capitol Avenue thus would have functioned as a real gateway to the Statehouse complex, rather than a merely symbolic or ceremonial one.

West’s train station was never built, of course, since it was soon rendered moot by the automobile. Springfield has a new opportunity to build a rail gateway to downtown, in the form of the proposed new transit hub on 10th Street. Present plans call for putting it between Washington and Adams streets. Either street makes a better gateway to the heart of Springfield than Capitol, yet it is Capitol that is being is groomed as (quoting Mr. Blagojevich again) “a red carpet to the Statehouse and other famed downtown sites.” Presumably the new station will include a gateway to the gateway.

Better perhaps to simply abandon the Capitol Avenue rehab. Springfield already has the central reference point for walking tourists, one that is better than the prettified Capitol — South Sixth Street between Washington and Capitol That street needs no multimillion-dollar investment to render it comely to visitors. It includes one of the few architecturally viable blocks left in all of downtown, humanly-scaled and lined with small shops that attract people and divert the eye, and walking along it takes strollers from the Presidential funhouse past Lincoln’s law offices and Old State Capitol toward his house.

Besides, there is a long list of things the tourists’ Springfield needs more than it needs $17 million worth of faux brick. The statue of Lincoln at Capitol’s Second Street terminus stands in front of a building he never even saw. Why not transplant it up the street to Eighth, where it would announce the presence of the Lincoln home park? The hole that would leave in front of the Statehouse could be left as is, as a monument to State of Illinois financing practices. Imagine the CPAs who would line up to have their photos taken in front of it.

“Beautification” is what cities usually give people after they’ve stripped a street of every other reason to linger on it. Downtown Springfield has suffered through more beautification plans than Joan Rivers, yet tourism numbers continue to slide. There is a lesson there. It would be nice if official Springfield would learn it.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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