Zone Defense

Spot zoning nibbles away at the capital city

Illinois Times

December 8, 1988

Spot zoning is one of those dead horses I kept beating in the hopes that it might get up and pull Springfield toward a more sophisticated land use and development policy. Every city allows exceptions to its zoning rules, but in Springfield exceptions are the rule.

 

Hermit crabs!" I said the words out loud in celebration, but fortunately no one overheard me; I was walking down South Grand at the time, and pedestrians in that part of Springfield are as rare as Shakespeare lovers on the city council. I had been trying for blocks to recall the name of the crustacean which houses itself by appropriating the abandoned shells of other creatures. As so often happens when I am abroad in the city, I was in search of a metaphor, in this case one which might describe the hodge-podge conversion of single-family houses into shops and offices.

 

You see them everywhere, in Springfield especially in the older neighborhoods. A fresh coat of paint, a sign (usually mispunctuated) plopped into the yard advertising products or services so unappealing that I wonder whether Barnum wasn't misquoted, and that when he said there was a sucker born every minute he was referring to the world's sellers rather than buyers. Most of these 'businesses" are hardly more than hobbies, confetti left littering the city after Reagan's mad ball, proof that entrepreneurship has become a hot new pastime. The ambitious middle-class Springfieldian apparently dreams of having her own insurance agency the way her mom dreamed of having separate bathrooms.

 

I am all for the incubation of small businesses. I am a small businessman myself. But the conversion of dozens of viable houses in viable residential districts into Mom-and-Pop (or more likely these days, Mom-and-Mom) enterprises is worrying. Buying a house is a poor person's way to acquire not just a premises but a parking lot. (Thus the appeal of such properties compared to the downtown business district.)

 

Whatever the suitability of these properties for business—and most of them will be out of business before you can say "comprehensive plan"—they detract from the city as city. The trend results in the dispersal of commercial land uses, which means that doing business in the city requires more automobile trips, more gasoline, more parking spaces than it otherwise might. It reduces the stock of low-cost housing, and in the process speeds neighborhood decline. Adjacent houses become less valuable as places to live (especially if they are demolished for accessory parking) and that discourages reinvestment; also, since their neighborhoods seldom offer expansive commercial possibilities the pace of further conversion (and thus the opportunities to sell out) is scant. The wave of commercialization which planners have expected to engulf South Grand Avenue between Second Street and MacArthur Boulevard for the past twenty years, for instance, has to date only dampened a few basements.

 

Springfield once was notorious for the eagerness with which it "spot-zoned" commercial uses into residential blocks. The result was a hybrid urban form, shaped by neither the market (which would have compelled a more widespread pattern of mixed uses) nor planners (whose zoned city was thus compromised). Instead we saw urban design-by-donation, in which exceptions to agreed-upon land use patterns were negotiated by politicians and their benefactors.

 

We don't see spot zoning much anymore. Instead, we have what might be called creep zoning, as properties near—not necessarily adjacent to—existing commercial lots are redeveloped for commercial use as well. On this particular walk I noticed three instances in just a nine-block stretch of South Grand (at Spring, Holmes, and State streets) where businesses have opened on lots facing side streets which intersect South Grand but which themselves are residential in character. It's as if, when the planners drew in commercial zoning along that thoroughfare, the ink bled a little. The results cannot be justified on grounds of contiguity or coherence, except by a lawyer paid to do so; they are classic instances of the-area-is-going-to-hell-anyway approach to land use control. That such intrusions are not as egregious as those the old spot-zoning used to allow is small comfort; to say that Springfield's promiscuous zoning policies have thus been reformed is like saying that a paroled bank robber has been reformed because he now robs nothing bigger than a gas station.

 

Most cities' official land use plans have much more land zoned for "higher" uses as multi-family residential or commercial than would be needed under the most extravagant projections of economic growth. Such plans are highly political documents, of course, and they reflect the urgent preferences of local landlords who like over-zoning because it leaves them with the widest range of options for development. A plan is, of course, a guess about the future, and some provision must be made for the natural market-induced changes in land use. But consigning whole districts of single-family housing to commercial conversion is dumb.

 

Planning prohibitions alone are little protection against this kind of redevelopment anyway. The perfect example is the neighborhood around Lincoln's home. The purchase by the Department of Interior of the eight blocks surrounding the house was made to erect a moat of sorts to keep out gimcrack commercial intruders. The demand for gift shops, even food service near the house is real and reasonable, especially now that tourist traffic has picked up again. But instead of intelligently accommodating that demand inside the site boundaries (and thus pre-empting private entrepreneurs less respectful of the site's ambiance) the feds banned it.

 

The result is that properties immediately outside the site's boundaries are being converted into souvenir boutiques. (In a poignant irony, one of these is located in the frame house most recently used as the law offices of former mayor Nelson Howarth, the most eloquent opponent of the commercialization of the Lincoln home area.)

 

The city has responded with plans to expand the protections of its "historic district" zoning to the wider Lincoln home area; the only certain effect of this is that the inevitable new businesses will be driven farther away from the home than ever and thus will be even more likely to fail.

 

That fate, by the way, is nicely ironic. Local government which used to occasionally see its role as ameliorating the consequences of development, lately sees its role as a promoter of development. By allowing new businesses to locate where their chances of success are so marginal, the city manages to advance neither the cause of land use or of economic development. City hall, as a glance at Springfield's land use plan will confirm, is not zoned for common sense. ●

SITES

OF

INTEREST

John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago

 

The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois

 

Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives

 

Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum

 

The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

Chicagology

I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)

BOOKS

 OF INTEREST

Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 

Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.

Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 

Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

All material copyright © by James Krohe Jr. unless otherwise indicated