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Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011 07:02 am

East side commercial zone could get facelift

Funding could hinge on cooperation by businesses

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Springfield mayor Mike Houston says developing new businesses on land currently serving as the JC Penney parking lot at South Grand Avenue and Dirksen Parkway is key to a revamped commercial area on the city's east side.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

The cluttered skyline near South Grand Avenue and Dirksen Parkway in Springfield overlooks a swirling mass of fast-food wrappers and plastic shopping bags blown across an empty and unkempt lot by the brisk winter wind. It’s exactly the kind of scene that planners of a renewed commercial zone on the city’s east side say keeps the area from thriving.

They’re touting a plan that could transform one of Springfield’s main entryways into a commercial destination, though finding the money to pull it off could prove challenging.

PGAV Planners of St. Louis hosted an open house Dec. 8 at Union Baptist Church, 1405 E. Monroe Street in Springfield, to display their vision for the east side commercial area near the intersection of South Grand Avenue and Dirksen Parkway. PGAV worked with the City of Springfield, the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce and local businesses to create a plan that calls for attractive landscaping, faade updates for two anchor businesses and recruiting several new businesses.

Springfield mayor Mike Houston said the most important piece of the puzzle is the repurposing of land surrounding the JC Penney department store at 1201 S. Dirksen Parkway. The store’s current expansive parking lot would be cut into smaller parcels to accommodate several new businesses like a pharmacy or a restaurant. The JC Penney building, renovated on the inside last year, would also receive an exterior facelift under the plan.

An existing TIF district covers part of the commercial zone already, Houston said, but it hasn’t generated enough money to pay for significant improvements.

TIF districts work by establishing a base tax level for properties within a blighted area that is targeted for improvement. As property taxes increase, any money above the base level is reinvested in the area. With a TIF district, local taxing bodies can issue bonds to help pay for improvements, but that must be paired with expected improvements in property taxes to pay back the debt.

In a report detailing the redevelopment plan, PGAV suggests additional funding options, like sharing sales tax revenues and seeking federal grants and tax credits.

Farther east along South Grand Avenue, the Nudo Products warehouse, 1500 Taylor Ave., would receive modern awnings and a new coat of colorful paint to give the building a more welcoming appearance. Several parcels of land would be rezoned to group similar businesses together and create buffer zones adjacent to residential areas.

John Brancaglione, vice president of PGAV Planners, said business owners in the area expressed concern about crime rates, but an examination of crime trends and discussions with beat police show those fears may be unfounded. While the residential neighborhood west of the commercial area does have elevated crime levels, Brancaglione said the commercial area itself has normal crime levels, with less serious crimes like shoplifting.

Houston said the commercial area should have basic design standards for items like light fixtures to help eliminate clutter and create a consistent feel for the area. Still, any standards would be carefully implemented to avoid deterring investments by businesses, he said.

“It would be very nice to be able to say, ‘This is the standard and everything is going to look like this,’ but then again we might not have any development,” Houston said. “Right now, what we need is a development, and we need a catalyst. I think that if we have someone who is interested in doing something, we can work with them.”

Norm Sims, executive director of the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission, said he’s hopeful the project can start immediately. The commission helped PGAV with research for the proposal.

“I’d like to see, within the next 12 months, the various property owners coming together to see how we can move this forward,” Sims said. “PGAV has laid out some good implementation steps; we just need to start following those. It’s that simple.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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