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Thursday, March 3, 2011 10:41 am

Bringing back MacArthur Blvd.

MACBAC committee latest step for master plan


One of several suggested themes for MacArthur Boulevard's new signage.

The plan is in place, a commission has been formed and an air of energy is all about, but it could be awhile before those driving up and down MacArthur Boulevard can actually see the fruits of a major collaborative redevelopment effort now underway.

The MacArthur Boulevard Business Association (MBBA) last week unveiled the final version of a master redevelopment plan for the blighted corridor, which runs a length of about 3.5 miles between South Grand and Wabash avenues. The plan calls for greener streetscapes, new signage, fewer parking spaces, better use of the alley system and redevelopment of now-vacant building sites, such as the old Kmart and Esquire Theatre sites. It also calls for major rezoning and revitalization incentives that can help harness business activity at three main points, each surrounded by residential accommodations. [See “Building a new MacArthur,” July 1, 2010].

It’s the work toward rezoning and development incentives, the foundation for much of the rest of the master plan, that is most likely to be accomplished in the short-term, says MBBA president Cory Jobe. “The most achievable step is something you won’t see visually yet,” he says. He adds that the second-most achievable goal is an improved streetscape with more greenery and new signage – work that residents and visitors will be able to see but probably not for 12 to 24 months.

To help bring about those changes and to bring in new development, Mayor Frank Edwards has appointed 18 business owners, residents and government representatives to a new commission called MACBAC (MacArthur Boulevard Action Committee). Charged with overseeing progress toward the goals set in the master plan, the commission will form committees to establish funding sources, facilitate cooperation among existing businesses and develop new signage and a corridor branding strategy. Micah Bartlett, President and CEO of Town & Country Financial Corp., will chair the commission. With a diverse group of businesses along the boulevard and multiple governmental jurisdictions involved, Bartlett says that finding points of agreement and a little patience will be key. “Lots of times people think big visions can’t be accomplished because they don’t see the entire path to the end of the vision, but we can start taking the first steps one at a time. Our approach will be to build consensus and work on the things that everybody can get on the same page about.”

One of the first orders of business will be establishing revenue streams. The master plan’s suggestions for roadway and streetscape improvements – which include trees, decorative streetlights and the narrowing of the street to accommodate a green buffer zone between redesigned curbs and new sidewalks – would cost an estimated $6.2 million, with up to $700,000 more for design and engineering costs. Other aspects of implementing the master plan – from creating a branding and marketing strategy to revising zoning codes and incentivizing businesses to improve their looks – will require additional funding, with some one-time and some annually recurring expenses of up to $150,000 each year.

To pay for implementation of the master plan, revenue options could include such tools as a tax increment financing (TIF) district as well as grants from all levels of state government and private individuals and foundations. “We’ll look at everything,” Springfield Mayor Frank Edwards says, specifically naming federal development block grants as a potential funding source.

Jobe says that, since the master plan process began, numerous commercial and residential property developers have approached the MBBA about the vacant properties along MacArthur Boulevard. Stating that there have been a few “false starts” in the past, he declined to give any further details.

John LaMotte, city planner and principal with The Lakota Group, one of the companies hired with grant funds to develop the master plan, says bringing in new development is a long-term goal, especially considering the current struggling economy. Instead, he says, the immediate question is, “How do we improve and enhance what we have?”

For nearby resident Vanessa Power, who works at Butler Elementary School and dreams of opening a small business on MacArthur Boulevard, it’s encouraging to have in place a master plan and a designated team for its implementation. “I think it’s a huge need,” she says about redevelopment, adding that her State Street home has been broken into twice since she moved in two years ago. “I think it [the master plan] is a great idea, just wonderful.”

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com.

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