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Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012 06:05 am

‘Things’ll be great when you’re downtown’

Making Springfield’s center a neighborhood

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COURTESY GREATER SPRINGFIELD CHAMBER OF COMMERCE

Who would have thought that Petula Clark would turn out to be an urban policy seer? Perhaps you saw the SJ-R report about the “Sustainable Design Assessment Team” brought in to advise on how to keep the downtown Springfield of the 2010s from sliding back into the downtown of the 1980s. One of the architect-members of the team asserted, “Enticing more people to live in downtown Springfield is vital to sustaining gains in historic and commercial restoration of the area.” It is important, she said, to “start thinking of downtown Springfield as a neighborhood.”

I’m game. So have been lots of people. In 2007, architecture students from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, in their Blueprint for Springfield, reimagined downtown as a “neighborhood that allows residents to walk to shops, jobs and cultural and entertainment venues, encouraging mixed-use development [and] providing a variety of residential offerings.” (See “New urbanism the Springfield way,” July 30, 2009.) Then there was the Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team whose drive-by civic improvement plan in 2002 stated, “The downtown would benefit substantially from more housing and a greater resident population.”

City hall reacted to the R/UDAT recommendation as if they had never imagined such things were possible. (They reminded me of 11-year-olds hearing about sex for the first time.) But living downtown in unused upper floors of Springfield commercial buildings was a new idea in 2002 only to people who really were behind in their reading. Downtown Springfield, Inc. began escorting the curious on annual Upper Story Tours during National Historic Preservation Month more than a decade ago. In 1983 this paper’s editor wrote about the TIF-backed $9.6 million Lincoln Square Project that built apartments in the square-block south of the Old State Capitol Mall, “Every town in the country is trying to figure out what to do with its old downtown, and they’ll all come to Springfield for a look.” And Carolyn Oxtoby, who was named the
SJ-R’s Springfield First Citizen in 1998 for being Springfield’s first downtown redeveloper, had been converting upper floors into apartments since the mid-1970s.

Residential conversion is by now an evolved art. One can consult architects who are inventive at turning storerooms into bedrooms, bankers adept at crafting loans, lawyers skilled at drafting leases, agency staff who can explain the ins and outs of tax exemptions or credits in ways that leave one marveling at the capacity of the human mind. And the City of Springfield is eager to help; the city last year agreed to hand over up to $1.2 million from downtown tax increment funds to help local architect Larry Quenette add 13 one- and two-bedroom rental apartments above his offices at 201 E. Adams St.

Still, a neighborhood downtown Springfield ain’t. Lack of amenities is one drag, but you only get a lack of amenities when you have a lack of people. We must ask again the question posed two and half years ago in these pages by R.L. Nave: “The capital city is brimming with grand ideas about how to grow the city’s core....So why hasn’t anything happened yet?”

Lots of reasons. For instance, few of the forces propelling thousands of people back downtown in cities across the country – commute distances to downtown jobs and cost of owning a car, to name two – are at work in Springfield. Then there are cultural inclinations that are beyond the reach of argument. Downtowners relish (or are at least tolerant of) variety, bustle, serendipity. Younger people with decent incomes who want those things usually move to bigger cities where your rent buys adventure as well as a place to sleep. The many more people who stay and who want quiet and space and distance are not going to look downtown to find them.

However, the city attracts plenty of come-and-go state workers, lobbyists, consultants and other itinerants, many of whom commute from Chicago. People like State Sen. Antonio Munoz from the McKinley Park neighborhood of Chicago’s near South Side, who is said to have plans to turn the three-story building he bought at 520 E. Monroe St. into a pied-e-terre. Or Lincoln scholar Michael Burlingame, who on his appointment to the UIS faculty, opted for a flat on Sixth across the street from the Presidential Library.

The real problem might be on the supply side. Owners know that while they can make money, especially in a building listed as historic, they can’t make quite as much money, or quite as easily, as they can renting out commercial space. (Life safety requirements such as fire escapes can make second floors more costly to renovate than ground floors.) And buildings are smaller; converting 40-story office buildings into condos or apartments, as has happened dozens of times in Chicago lately, offers rich pickin’s, but the conversion of Springfield’s two- and three-story commercials with space for only one or two residential units is often unviable financially, even after tax credits and property tax exemptions.

What might be needed is conversion on a much larger scale – the realization of Oxtoby’s plans for the Ferguson Building for example, and similar large office structures like the Ridgely Building. The city would have to be intelligently supportive (by, for example, funding new parking structures on now-vacant lots to serve tenants, or at least the adoption of street permits for residents). Or better yet, the city could buy and fix up a multi-unit building and offer it to an experienced developer on a turnkey basis to show it can work, as the R/UDAT team proposed back in 2002. A city is made up of neighborhoods, but cities also make neighborhoods.  

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

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