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Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011 05:04 am

Asphalt somethingness

Springfield parking lots are looking (a little) better

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The Lincoln Home visitors center parking lot was once hidden from street view by conifers.
PHOTO BY DAVID HINE

Returning to Springfield after a trip, even a local patriot sees as if for the first time what catches the eye of so many visitors. Pretend that the gaudy billboards do not exist. Look the other way when passing the prefab buildings that are more appropriate to house a disc harrow than a business in a thriving city. What you cannot not see are the parking lots.

I accept that people who want surface parking lots must have them. What I do not accept is that the rest of us must look at them. Other towns take care to block parking lots from the view of passersby, the way a considerate guest covers her mouth when yawning, or legislative leaders meet behind closed doors. But Springfield has never been the kind of city that worries about keeping the living room tidy in case visitors drop by.

The best solution is to remove lots from the street altogether by placing them behind buildings in the interior of the block, as The Lakota Group has proposed in its model for possible new retail structures along South MacArthur. Street-facing lots can be concealed using ornamental fences or walls. The Illinois Municipal League borders its lots – one just off Fifth on Capitol, the other on Sixth south of Sangamo Alley – with low brick walls and wrought iron screening. This might be called the Romney approach to parking lot concealment; it’s handsome, but you can see right through it.

The most common method, because it’s the cheapest, is to ring lots with trees and shrubs. Alas, the City of Springfield’s landscaping requirements have long been the despair of the public-minded nurseryman. Until the adoption in 2001 of more stringent landsdcaping requirements drafted by the Hasara administration’s Springfield SCENIC project, the majority of surface parking lots contained no perimeter or interior landscaping at all. A typical result can be seen at the old Esquire lot on MacArthur, which Michael Funk described in a blog post last year as a “desert of obtrusive, asphalt nothingness.“

I’d gotten a little behind in my reading, so it was only recently that I read this year’s survey of parking in the city center published by the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission. It noted that 19 lots have been constructed since the adoption of new standards for the construction and maintenance of parking lot landscaping meant in part to “mitigate the view of cars and pavement.” “It is evident that off-street parking is more attractive,” the report states, “and is improving in appearance.” It cited as models the lots at the Ellinger-Kunz Funeral Home on North Fifth, Illinois Primary Healthcare Association on South Ninth and Memorial Hospital’s new employee parking lot at Carpenter and Rutledge.

“Improving in appearance.” Lovely words, and heard as seldom around Springfield as “I’ll have the harira” or “Not guilty, you honor.” However, the Springfield requirements are satisfied by widely spaced low-growing shrubs and scattered trees that mitigate the view only for passing Pekinese. In the better-managed Chicago suburbs, it is usual to border lots with a solid hedge at least three feet tall. While such short hedges do not perfectly obscure the cars behind them, they at least create an uninterrupted bulwark of greenery facing the street that diverts the eye from the wastes behind it.

A model in this regard used to be the visitors parking lot at Lincoln’s home, which was bermed and bordered by clumps of conifers. I chided the National Park Service at the time for making even their urban sites look like Rocky Mountain lodges, but you couldn’t see a station wagon through those branches, much less drive through them. Those conifers have been replaced by widely spaced deciduous trees that will never screen the view unless their wood is rendered into fences.

Some will complain that the real problem is the continuing murder of so many streetscapes as commercial buildings are lost to the pavers. And yes, planting gardens to improve the looks of parking lots is like putting makeup on a corpse. But aesthetics matter in an economy in which so much depends on impressing visitors, from medical patients and their families to tourists, shoppers and would-be college students.

So full marks to the people who pushed for new rules, to the property owners who have chosen to comply with them – when it comes to zoning and building regulations, complying does seem to be a choice in Springfield – and to the planning commission for trying to bring to the public’s attention some of the better examples of the landcaper’s art. Having highlighted the best local practices, perhaps next time the SSCRPC could highlight the best state and national practices. Having earned opprobrium for permitting the most parking lots, perhaps the City of Springfield could win praise for building the best.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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