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Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017 12:21 am

More parking downtown?

The newest idea for the Y block is the worst

Could the Y block become a temporary park?


First it was going to be the site of a courts complex, then of a new Lincoln museum. After that hope fizzled it was going to be home to a showcase mixed-use development, but the City of Springfield backed out of the deal. “It” is the YWCA block downtown, the graveyard of broken dreams, two acres of salted earth where big ideas go to die.

Well, when you can’t muster the resources – financial or political – to do what ought to be done, you declare that what you can do ought to be done. That’s what Mayor Jim Langfelder is doing. The mayor’s new vision (“vision:” dream, illusion, hallucination) for the block is green and leafy, specifically, a park to complement the restoration of the governor’s mansion across the street. The people working with the Illinois Executive Mansion Association, Langfelder told the press, are looking for something like Chicago’s Millennium Park, “where someone would come to Springfield and say, ‘Wow!’”

Trust me, mayor, downtown already has something that makes people who come to Springfield say, ‘Wow!’” It’s a full city block, located two blocks from the Statehouse, that has lain empty for 39 years.

Mr. Langfelder seems a decent guy who really wants to be a better mayor than Springfield is probably willing to let him be, but this is just silly. Chicago attracts more than 50 million tourists every year, almost all of whom crowd downtown; another more than 200,000 people live there. Springfield tourism traffic is in the thousands, and its downtown resident population in the hundreds. In “Putting parks in their place,” I noted that public parks are problematic in settings where the public does not agree on how to use them. Public parks are even more problematic in settings where there is no public. Besides, “wow” is expensive. Millennium Park’s Cloud Gate sculpture alone cost $23 million.

Longtime readers would never guess that I am an expert on any topic more complicated than checking out a library book, but I do know a bit about orphaned downtown blocks, specifically Chicago’s version of the Y block – Block 37 across State Street from the main store of what was then Marshall Field’s. It was cleared for redevelopment in 1989 but a series of fiascos led to its remaining vacant until 2006. Today Block 37 is home to a mall that recently sold for $200 million, a 694-unit apartment tower and a 440,000-square-foot office building.  

While the City of Chicago waited for a deal to happen on Block 37, the space was used as a winter skating rink and a summer student art gallery. Springfield should also put the Y block to some interim use. Equipped with a restroom pavilion, it would make a nice site for a farmers market, but the surface would have to be paved. Because it slopes from north to south, the block also would make a nice sledding hill. I can see the executive mansion setting up a warming tent with hot chocolate for the kiddies, with the governor himself inviting the public to join him in a downhill slide.

An un-wow park also would be a perfectly good interim use of the space. Sue and Kent Massie, the Springfield landscape architects, have proposed a design for a “Bicentennial Park” that would offer a multi-seasonal interactive water feature and an amphitheater for performances. This would be a step forward, so long as it was understood that the use would be temporary, pending the redevelopment of the property.

However, the mayor is talking as if a park is to become a fixture on the downtown landscape. It would adorn the Jackson Street corridor, a project of ill-defined purpose that will, like the still-unfinished Capitol Avenue promenade a block away, lead tourists from the Lincolns’ house to the Capitol and which depends on funding from a state that can’t pay its bills. Only if the park idea falls through, says the mayor, will the city entertain proposals for development, probably in the form of more modest mixed residential-commercial projects. But smaller-scale development would be a bigger error because, unlike a park, it would not be feasible to remove it for something better.

Speaking of downtown rejuvenation in general, the mayor told our Bruce Rushton the other day, “Nobody has the right answer.” That is not true, as dozens of revived downtowns in Illinois and the rest of the country confirm. We also know some of the wrong answers, and building a permanent park on the Y block is one of them.

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


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