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Thursday, Nov. 4, 2010 08:14 am

‘A little bit of a challenge’

If the MacArthur plan works, more than the street might be saved


Consultants recommend spruced-up business facades and green spaces as part of a plan that includes better planning and zoning.

Like people, streets suffer midlife crises. MacArthur Boulevard between South Grand and Wabash has been going through one for years. The former West Grand Avenue, one of Springfield’s four grand avenues before it was renamed in 1942 for the general some regard as a military hero, once was the cool place to shop, to cruise, to hang out on Springfield’s then southwest side. Sadly for it, MacArthur was about the only way to get to White Oaks in the days before Veterans Parkway and Iles enabled local drivers to get stuck in traffic in more places than ever. As New Springfield grew, MacArthur ceased to be a place to go to and became a place to go through. Nonetheless, South MacArthur remains the Main Street of a populous and relatively affluent neighborhood, which is why the Springfield Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission commissioned a group of consultants headed by Chicago’s Lakota Group to figure out how to make a tired West Grand Avenue grand again. (See “MacArthur makeover,” Jan. 21 and “Plugging leaks in MacArthur’s market,” Sept. 16.)

As a Lakota official put it to IT, the project will be “a little bit of a challenge,” in both urban planning and economic development terms. As it has evolved under successive feckless city councils, the street south of South Grand consists of chopped up blocks of 1920s-era bungalows at its northern end and its southern end is dominated by a clapped out 1960s-style regional shopping center. What visitors find is not the vibrant messiness of a city neighborhood but mere confusion.

There’s probably not much that could be done to help the northern stretch, short of a local redevelopment authority buying up marginal properties and consolidating them for resale to retailers of means willing to build to a higher standard. More possibilities exist around Outer Park Drive. The plan embodies ideas about urban planning (what its authors describe as “alternative land use mixes and development concepts”) that are largely new to Springfield but which have been tried and tested by now in a thousand “town centers” and moribund ’60s shopping strips. Concentrate shops, services and people in high-density, multi-unit and mixed use developments that place housing atop retail or office space and put people closer to shops and jobs. Reorient commercial and social life to the sidewalk rather than the street, in part by adding pocket parks and converting now-barren streetside space into a promenade with landscaped sidewalks.

If New Springfield is an imitation Chicago suburb circa 1980, Lakota’s hoped-for new MacArthur reminds me more of the better-managed Chicago suburbs of the early 2000s. At certain points along the street – at the old K-Mart site between Cherry and Outer Park for example – these new walkways would front new buildings in the form of two-story retail podiums surrounding a common parking lot in the interior of the block whose side street frontage would be filled with new condo buildings.

Building to the lot line in this way restores the street wall, creates a sense of place, enlivens the eye, and feels more urban. Like goat cheese or hoppy beers, that might still be too strong for some locals to swallow. (One State Journal-Register commenter imagined that shoppers would be obliged to “park next to a dumpster, hop up on the loading dock, and enter through the storerooms.”)

Perhaps to mollify such reflexive anti-urbanist opinion, Lakota came up with a sort of Mixed-use Lite plan. No housing atop commercial, but separate housing very near it. More crucially, the plan for that block doesn’t embrace the street as much as it turns its back on it. The new shops would face off-street parking, not MacArthur, in a quintessentially suburban gesture.

As a way to bridge the gap between urban setting and suburban lifestyle, this is not a new model but an old one. The new MacArthur was tried more than a half-century ago in Old Springfield, when Sears, Roebuck & Co. opened its handsome new store on South Grand at Second. Sears occupied the entire block, with the store itself filling the northern third and the rest of the block devoted to a surface parking lot that shoppers entered from the side streets of Second or First. Sears was a handsome addition to the neighborhood, for all its size. Unfortunately, its enlightened urbanism was not imitated by other developers, with the result that South Grand Avenue has suffered its own MacArthurization.

One Lakota planner kindly described what we must call south South MacArthur as “tired.” Important as it is to add vim to what remains a major thoroughfare, that is not the real promise of the Lakota plan. Before the street can be rebuilt to accommodate new uses, the City of Springfield’s equally tired rules for land use planning, urban design tools and building will have to be rebuilt too. And that might rejuvenate the whole city.

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

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