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Thursday, May 26, 2016 12:01 am

Undesirables

A new project to stimulate downtown living – 33 years ago

In 1983 Springfield was working on a new idea – geting more people to live downtown.
This week our look back over IT’s 40 years is occasioned by the City of Springfield’s halting efforts to redevelop the Y block. Hopes that a residential building here will magically transform downtown are extravagant, as this column from Feb. 17, 1983, reminds us.


The question is simply put: How ’ya gonna move ’em into downtown, after they’ve seen Candletree?

Downtown Springfield is, or will be, fairly humming with new residential construction. The refurbished St. Nicholas and Governor hotels, Near North Village, and, newest of all, the proposed Lincoln Square redevelopment south of the Old State Capitol – together will add several hundred new rental dwelling units to a housing stock grown thin from age and demolitions.

To date virtually all the people who have moved downtown have done so in search of subsidized housing, they being either old or handicapped. (Such groups are worth millions to a developer, who can mine them like gold.) But the nearly 200 units in the St. Nick and Lincoln Square projects will have to be filled by people who must take them on their merits, middle class types able to pay from $400 to $435 a month (plus parking) for one-bedroom apartments offering a view of, among other things, me going back and forth to work every day.

If we assume for the sake of argument that each of these units will be occupied by 1.5 persons (this is a demographic convention; no specific reference to state workers is intended) this means that developers will need to find roughly 300 sensible people in Springfield and environs. This will be a daunting task for any marketer and one whose success, however much I may hope for it, seems to me to be far from assured.

The economic and demographic signs seem propitious enough. But culture plays a part too. Springfield is not much of a city, but its downtown is at least city-like. Its principal attractions are also its principal detractions. Taken as a group, Springfieldians would seem to be among those whom Lewis Mumford described 20 years ago [in The Urban Prospect] as “dis-urbanized [people] who no longer live in cities, or enjoy, except as visitors or part-time occupants, the concentrated social advantages of the city: the face-to-face meetings, the cultural mixtures, the human challenges.”

The undesirability of downtowners is mostly esthetic; it isn’t fear that makes the prospect of living downtown for certain of our people so troubling, but fastidiousness. . . .
 Downtown, one must share the streets with bag ladies, rag pickers, evangelists, halfway house refugees, drunks, cripples, poor people of all denominations. One may have to deal occasionally with panhandlers, and pedestrians have found it necessary to add collisions with paraplegics in electrified wheelchairs to their list of hazards. One may occasionally share a bus with a man who looks like he trims his hair with a Weed-Eater; one may occasionally share a coffee shop with a woman who takes up her hash browns with her hands and chews her fork. In short, one will learn anew that life is a cabaret, old chum.

That this lesson does not come easy to some people is too plain. The middle class shrinks from such Americana as if they were tax auditors. Like the character in one of Barbara Pym’s novels, they are likely to find even the public library “a little upsetting, for one saw so many odd people there.” Only a handful of the 11 “market” apartments at Near North Village have been let to date, in spite of the many pluses they offer certain upscale types, merely because they overlook Donna’s Adult Book Store.

Living downtown makes too much sense to be very popular at first. And if “problems” such as crime are exaggerated, other problems are not at all exaggerated. Parking is one such problem – not that there isn’t enough of it, but that much of it is in awkward places. More troubling to me is my suspicion that our city fathers have mastered the rhetoric of the New Downtown without having any real commitment to it. Tax increment plans and community development grants will get Springfield’s New Downtown built, but it will take enlightened planning, transportation, zoning and code administration to make it work.

Still, I find myself with no appetite for chewing on the problems these projects face. The local contingent of potential downtown dwellers should be large enough to fill the St. Nick and Lincoln Square, with enough assistant associate directors left over to form a softball league. I expect them to do so, not out of any sense of altruism or adventure – this is the wrong bunch for either – but because, by every measure that matters, it’s such a good deal.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.

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