Why the Presbyterians Should Not Tear Down Buildings for a Parking Lot
God approves more parking for Springfield
July 21, 1978
Predictably enough, the demolitions discussed here did not result in church expansion or a day care center and senior citizens housing consistent with the church "mission." Instead downtown Springfield got another ugly unlandscaped surface parking lot that was eventually sold to the federal government which—thanks good—at least put a building on it.
I was brought up to not disagree with policemen and men of the cloth. This I did, not from piety but prudence, because both were assumed to speak for a higher authority. But I am forced, reluctantly, to disagree with one now. In the "Illinois Times" of July 14–20, 1978, there appeared an exculpatory essay by Howard L. Milkman Jr., pastor of Springfield's First Presbyterian Church. Its subject was the plans recently announced by the church to acquire some half-dozen buildings on Sixth Street and Capitol Avenue adjoining the church's property. The buildings there will be torn down eventually, though when and in what order has not been decided, and replaced by some new structures devoted to some yet unspecified church work. In the interim the space will be used for parking.
Several factors swayed the congregation to take this step, according to Milkman. One was the need for parking, a chronic problem for downtown businesses, including churches. Another was the threat from fire from nearby structures; one, a two-story commercial/apartment building immediately to the west of the church, was gutted by fire last winter. Third was the desire to grab a once-in-a-generation opportunity to secure space for the church's future expansion. Finally, and according to Milkman the most important, the congregation was reaffirming its commitment to remain in downtown Springfield. "We intend to stay downtown," Milkman insisted, "and insuring that we may, we vitally need space."
The project, when completed (plans are contingent on financing) will result in the destruction of a half-dozen commercial structures which together house some fifteen or sixteen small businesses or organizations. (The district is headquarters of the city's fluttering activist wing, owing to the tolerant politics of the Kreider sisters who own most of it; that half-block houses the local ACLU offices, the League of Women Voters headquarters, Rudolph's Bean coffeehouse, and the state ERA office—four reasons some people might want to improve the area out of existence.)
The prospect of more downtown buildings being reduced to dust is a melancholy one for many, and it was in anticipation of their objections that Milkman wrote his defense. He says, for example, that his congregation had no interest in merely buying a parking lot, and that the land would be used eventually for church "mission"; a long-range planning committee is exploring possibilities that (if Milkman conjectures rightly) include a day care center and senior citizens housing.
Until then cars will use the space. How long is also unknown, but church officials say privately it could be anywhere from two to five years and possibly much longer. The church will make money from the lease of spaces, and Milkman cites the construction of the new state courts complex and the civic center as reasons why the opening of such lots would, far from being a bad thing for downtown, be a welcome one. The project, in short, should not be seen as a negative, self-protective move by the church by one which, by enabling the First Pres to stay downtown, by ridding the area of antiquated commercial structures, and by adding needed parking space, actually advances the cause of downtown's survival.
With that and a garden, I could grow vegetables.
The threat of fire is real enough. But an alley separates the church from the nearest building, and in any event tearing down a building to prevent its catching fire is like shooting church members to prevent their becoming sinners. The church says it needs room to expand but it has no clear idea why. Indeed, it appears that the church is having to invent a use for the land. Senior citizens' housing? There are at least three major new such projects going up within a few blocks of the church. Day care? For whose kids? Surely not the congregation's, few of whom live anywhere near downtown.
The suspicion lingers that the church is indeed buying a parking lot. Milkman notes ambiguously that the civic center and courts complex will be opened soon, events important presumably because they will add pressure on parking downtown. But both facilities, whose designers anticipated the need for parking, include substantial off-street parking space.
Parking is not much of a problem, of course, during Sunday services and for evening programs when downtown is vacated by weekday parkers, since on-street parking is free and there are hundreds of spaces in lots and ramps within five minutes of the church. But if the purpose of the new parking lots is to provide parking for church members during the weekdays, how can church spaces be leased to the non-church-going public? It appears that the parking public will subsidize the parking for church members, which is a reasonable business arrangement—and should be labeled as such.
But these are side issues. Milkman rightly notes that the First Pres parking issue is secondary to the broader goal of the church remaining downtown where it's been for more than a century. Milkman argues persuasively (though not conclusively) that in order to stay downtown it must have room to expand. Other Springfield churches have left downtown for the suburbs. Downtown churches as a group have been victims of the urban population shifts of recent generations. First Pres, for instance, used to be a neighborhood church. Its families lived in filigreed comfort in houses on Sixth and Seventh streets nearby. But the grandchildren of the founders now live in Leland Grove or similar outposts and retain their attachment to the downtown church out of sentiment rather than convenience. It is said (not by anyone connected with either church) that more than a few First Pres families now attend Westminster Presbyterian on the west side because it's more convenient.
Churches, in short, are competing in a buyers' market. Apparently the First's decision to stay downtown was not a unanimous one, at least at first, and there is always the risk that the church will lose more members who seek spiritual solace somewhere closer to home where they can get back in time for the start of football after Sunday services.
But the price of providing suburban convenience downtown is high, perhaps as high as the price of not providing it. I have seen too many buildings torn down to react calmly to the prospect of seeing more. I am not especially enthusiastic about the particular buildings threatened by the church project. But when buildings of any sort are taken down in wholesale lots, as they have in recent months downtown, one must begin to worry not about the destruction of individual structures but about the destruction of something larger. The dilution of the built environment threatens downtown itself, what Ada Louise Huxtable, in a recent dispatch from Paris, called "the delicate fabric of streets, lots, buildings and character that are the physical base of the city's unique style."
How many limbs can one lop off a tree, we need to ask, before it dies? Do we really want to turn downtown into another Town & Country shopping center? Will the church have to help destroy downtown in order to save it? Milkman says that "concern for the downtown area" has led to its "rejuvenation" in recent years. I'm not sure the word fits the facts; downtown Springfield has been rejuvenated in the same sense that a man who's escaped from a shark attack with only one leg eaten off can be said to have been rejuvenated. Rejuvenated connotes a rebirth, finding new uses for downtown, not its mindless demolition in an attempt to "adapt" it—meaning wreck it—for uses which are inappropriate to it.
Milkman ended his essay by asking for suggestions from those who care about downtown. I suggest that before any decision is made to convert the property to parking, the church should explore the possibilities of restoring structures in the parcel by adaptive reuse; that in addition to consulting with the higher powers, the appropriate church committees should get in touch with the state Department of Conservation's historic sites office for information about loans and reimbursement programs and with area architects experienced in such work; that the church at least entertain the possibility of preserving the attractive facades white' rehabilitating the interiors for new commercial/ educational/residential uses; that it at least consult with SCADA and other groups about the possibilities of finding new commercial tenants for the properties to generate rental income to offset costs of conversion for "mission" activities; that it consider whether or not its “mission'' may not be carried out in existing buildings, thus obviating the need for expensive new construction; and finally, that it think again whether it is downtown the church is committed to or the church itself which happens to be located there, and further whether it is possible to advance the causes of one without irreparably harming the other.
It may prove in the end that there are no more attractive options than leaving the block intact and having the church leave or having the church stay and seeing the rest of its block devastated. But demolition should be a last option, not the primary one; downtown can't stand many more such "improvements." ●