Cars wage war on buildings in the capital
November 12, 1976
Published on our Forum page, this is one of my early Illinois Times commentaries, a precursor to the Prejudices column that began the following year. I'd addressed the same issue in January of that year; that piece is here.
A few weeks ago I was sitting in the office of a lawyer friend, waiting while he talked to a client on the phone. On his bookshelf he had a 9 x 13-inch aerial photo of downtown Springfield, which he was using as evidence in a bit of gentlemanly haggling over the value of some condemned property. I absentmindedly studied the photo for quite a while—it was a long phone call—and tried, as a game, to identify as many business and buildings as I could off the top of my head.
The view was from the southeast. You could clearly see the municipal and county buildings, St. John's, the broad gray ribbon on Ninth Street. The Lincoln Home area was recognizable, as was Forum Thirty (still unfinished), the new Horace Mann headquarters, the Old Capitol, the square.
It wasn't very hard—I've lived in Springfield since I was less than two months old —but something about the picture bothered me. There was an echo of something in that shot and I couldn't figure out exactly what. As my friend hung up the phone and we resumed our conversation, I forgot about the photo for the moment. It took several days before I realized what it had reminded me of. That picture looked like the news shots I'd seen of bombed-out European cities after World War II.
True, we've used bulldozers instead of bombs, but the effect was the same. There was scarcely a block downtown intact. The cityscape was pockmarked with scars where buildings had once stood before they'd been replaced by asphalt parking lots. The blocks east of Seventh, for example—the area which includes the city and county buildings and the Lincoln Home area—were roughly 50 percent parking lots. It wasn't a city built for people I was looking at, but a city built for cars.
Many bright people, like Mark Heyman of Sangamon State University, have addressed the problem of the future of downtown in these pages. They have argued convincingly that new uses must be found for downtown if it is to survive suburbanization and a changing economy. Instead of its historical role as a residential and shopping center, they argue, the downtown of tomorrow will be a cultural and entertainment center, with an economic base firmly rooted in two functions unique to the Illinois capital—tourism and state government.
Lately, as a result of these forecasts, when I am foolish enough to lament the fate of another old building falling to the wrecker's ball. I am often chastised as if 1 were a schoolboy who still believes in Santa Claus. "But downtown is changing. You can't keep things the way they were. Downtown's got to change to keep up."
No argument there. But the destruction of its physical environment is manifestly not the kind of change championed by critics like Heyman. As an accommodation to changing times, in fact, the current smash-and-pave policy of the city's downtown property owners is a disaster.
Preserving nineteenth century buildings does not require preserving nineteenth century functions. Carolyn Oxtoby's recently unveiled plans for the resurrection of the Pasfield and Maldaner properties in the 200 block of South Sixth are a good example of how to preserve the best of downtown's physical environment while adapting it to changed economic conditions. But it's fruitless to talk about preservation unless there is something left to preserve.
For example, if tourism is indeed a key to the future economic health of downtown, then it is in the interests of the city—and especially the part of it that makes its living catering to the tourist—to preserve the fast-disappearing nineteenth century character of the downtown environment. To do so would provide a period backdrop to the Old State Capitol, the Lincoln-Herndon law offices, and other attractions.
Take another example. For twenty years now, downtown property owners, especially retailers, in responding to the erosion of their economic position by the shopping centers, have tried to make downtown look like another shopping center. They've replaced irreplaceable wood, ironwork, and decorative stone with exceedingly replaceable plastic, plate glass, and aluminum instead of tapping the resources of the area—its building, its scale, its intimacy—to create a unique shopping environment beyond the ability of any shopping center to duplicate. You can't beat a first-rate shopping center by building a second-rate one, but that's just what Springfield's downtown retailers have tried to do.
Trying to match the shopping centers architecturally is foolish enough, but trying to match their convenience is what is killing downtown. If acres of asphalt is what the customers want, the retailers seem to be saying, then acres of asphalt is what they'll get. Consider Lewis Herndon's new project on South Fifth. When the Herndon's store moved into its present store in 1965, the old store on South Fifth was leased to the state of Illinois for office space. Its most recent tenant was the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, now the Illinois Office of Education.
But the state built a new office building for IOE at Second and Washington. The Herndon Building was left vacant while the dust and taxes piled up. The owner therefore decided to convert the structure to professional office space, with maybe a first-floor mall and a top-floor restaurant thrown in for good measure.
But at the rents they win probably be paying the tenants may be expected to demand on-site parking space. So Herndon bought the old Lincoln Theater building one door to the south of the Herndon Building. Built in 1884, the structure originally housed the YMCA and Lincoln Library, among others; its latest tenants were the theater and the Fifth Street Florists. The building has been torn down—even though there is a four-level municipal parking ramp one block west at Fourth and Capitol, a private lot one block south at Fifth and Jackson, and underground parking two blocks north.
Downtown, you must remember, must change to fit the times.
Grade-level parking is the most land-inefficient way there is to store cars. The trade of buildings for asphalt is a bad bargain financially and a worse one aesthetically. In the last five years or so dozens of buildings—apartment houses, single-family houses, shops, and theaters—have been destroyed to make room for cars. Although the area immediately north of the statehouse complex has been hardest hit, whole chunks of other blocks have been chewed away.
During the war in Vietnam, an American field officer, after troops had reduced a suspected Vietcong stronghold to a dirty smudge on the ground, explained that they had had to "destroy the village in order to save it." In Springfield, SCADA and others argue that in order to preserve the city's center you have to bring people downtown to work and to shop. But people won't come downtown unless they can drive and in order for people to be able to drive they must have some place to put their cars. And, since land downtown is in short supply and since people apparently will not walk more than a block or two from their car to a store or office, it is necessary to tear down so many buildings to make room for the cars that there is no places left in which to work or shop.
It is necessary, in other words, to destroy downtown in order to save it. ●
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A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
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