At the Downtown Springfield Inc. annual awards dinner in January at the Wyndham City Centre, the Springfield Mayre Jim Langfelder talked about the most recent developments in the Bluffstone LLC proposal to build student housing downtown, which I wrote about it in “Doing development right.”
The city council, you might remember, chose not to grant the controversial firm the $700,000 in tax increment money it requested for the Fourth and Madison project, funding that the developer called critical.
Apparently Bluffstone will build anyway. I noted at the time that while the “no” vote didn’t kill the project, it probably would change it, and probably not in good ways. After the vote, Bluffstone hinted that they might make up the lost $700,000 in city money by squeezing the construction budget, which they have done by downsizing the building from five stories to four. But we know little more about what those four stories will be like than we did before.
A city can’t regenerate a downtown by just opening it to developers and hoping for the best. Development needs to be shaped, nudged, occasionally bullied by conscientious regulators into forms that meets the larger needs of the city. Expecting projects to meet code isn’t enough; code-compliant buildings can be ugly and inconvenient and bad neighbors, because Springfield’s codes don’t address ugly and inconvenient and neighborly.
Unfortunately, the capital city has no formal design review process. Complaints about the bulk, height, and facades of proposed buildings get talked about, if they get talked about at all, in public zoning hearings. For objectors who wish to raise issues with aesthetic, green or transit dimensions, that's a little like suing for divorce in traffic court.
The aldermen had foolishly granted zoning approval for a building they hadn’t yet seen. Their decision not to make the city a finance partner also removed a lever the city could have used to pry a better building out of the company. We will have to hope for the best. That isn’t a very good way to build a city.