White Oaks East
Springfield un-malls the town square
September 26, 1991
Municipal governments across Illinois, prodded by local business interests, tried several experiments in an attempt to defend the traditional town centers against malls and other shopping districts on the edge of town. One of them was to remodel tradition blocks into car-less malls, projhects that managed to misunderstand the nature of the shopping mall and of the traditional downtown. Here I remark on Springfield’s version of this innovation. By the way, my facetious suggestion in the final sentence is pretty much what has happened downtown since the piece was published.
It does not surprise me that a mayor and city council that can't decide how to recycle leaves and newspapers should be confused about how to recycle a block-long city street. The street in question is the 400 block of East Washington Street, which abuts the Old State Capitol on the north and which has been closed to vehicular traffic since it was plaza-ed in the 1960s. Pressure to "restreet" the plaza has come mainly from nearby merchants; the plaza blocks traffic moving east from Fifth Street, which of course is why so many people buy their jeans at White Oaks Mall instead of the Hub.
A sympathetic city council voted in January to open that block of Washington to traffic. This policy is opposed by Mayor Ossie "I Remember the Hapsbourgs" Langfelder. Indeed, when City Hall staffers in August asked for consultants' bids on the fix-up of the north plaza they asked for budgets and plans for the plaza's rehabilitation as well as its replacement. One gets the uneasy feeling that Langfelder wants to save the plaza as a parade ground where he can drill aldermen at marching in unison to his orders.
At the most immediate level, the problem with the plaza is that there is no retail on the north side of the square. Retail attracts customers throughout the day and on weekends, and keeps a street—or a mall—lively. In more advanced municipalities administrators do not allow any but retail uses of street-level property downtown, being aware of the deadening effect on street
life that offices have. But the market demand for space is for offices, so towns increasingly are left to choose between dead offices and even deader vacant storefronts.
As the city council has learned, it does little good to express an opinion on this topic that differs from the mayor's, but the ethics of my profession oblige me to ask whether it makes sense to build a "people place" where there are no people. The north plaza has become derelict because no one goes there; officials misconstrue the nature of public spaces work when they insist that people don't go there because it is derelict. There is no retail along Washington not because shoppers can't drive there but because that block of Washington is downtown. And people don't like to shop downtown because downtown is no longer the center of the city in a social, even a geographical sense. In fact, downtown is today on the wrong side of town as far as the city's middle class is concerned.
Carless malls are being ripped out by disillusioned municipalities across the nation and replaced with old-fashioned streets. But there seems to be no evidence that opening once-closed downtown shopping areas to auto traffic boosts sales of anything except asphalt paving. The economic evidence in favor of restreeting is mostly anecdotal, usually taking the form of "How's business?" interviews with merchants done soon after traffic has resumed.
For example, sales did rise very modestly in Oak Park in the first months after its main drag, Lake Street, was reopened to cars in 1990 as a part of a $2.7 million "restreeting" of that Chicago suburb's 1974 downtown mall. But retail vacancy rates there have improved only slightly since, a major retailer has closed, and the increase in sales may be explained by the recent conversion of vacant retail space to office use, which increased Lake Street's population of daytime shoppers.
Analysis of restreeting's effect is seldom correlated with larger regional retail trends, indeed with any external factors. Dick Hocking, vice-president of Evanston's nationally regarded consulting firm, Barton-Aschman (which has done work on Springfield's Old Capitol plazas) is a traffic consultant to the merchants of Chicago's State Street, who are contemplating a $60 million restreeting to remedy the fiasco that occurred when State was closed to auto traffic in 1979. Hocking admits that when it comes to the relationship between restreeting and sales, "I've not seen any cause-effect data that would pin that down."
Springfield's north Old Capitol plaza has become a social as well as an economic blemish. Restreeting's sponsor, Ward 2 alderman Frank McNeill, has expressed the hope that digging up the plaza will disperse the winos and other undesirables that congregate there. That it will do, but they would simply move someplace else—to Union Square probably, or to the plaza in front of the Municipal Building. (The latter is aggressively policed, however, ever since bums learned that passersby, mistaking them for aldermen, would sometimes approach them with a wink and thrust sums of cash into their pockets.)
There are other ways to clean up the north plaza. For half of what it would cost to restreet that block the city could give every wino in residence there a tent and a first-class plane ticket to Hawaii. For only a few hundreds bucks the men could be dressed in period outfits and added to the Old Capitol's roster of volunteer interpreters; they could be pointed out to tourists as 1850s legislators, who also spent at lot of time in drunken argument on the streets around the then-statehouse.
Downtown Springfield in its heyday was indeed a fine place to be, for citizen and businessman alike, and no one in Springfield has more nostalgic affection for it than I do. For more than a decade I shopped downtown in a vain hope of helping it stay alive—a noble but futile gesture, like voting for the best person for President, since no more than a handful of my townspeople shared my respect for the values that made it work—its pedestrian scale, its democratic ambiance, its local economics.
But that downtown is gone, malled to death, victim of race fear and automobilism and competition from national store chains. If the aldermen want to bring general retailing back to downtown they will have to build a roof over the place and call it the Old Capitol Mall or White Oaks East and appoint Melvin Simon mayor. Otherwise, they should just plant a border of poplars around the whole thing and market it as an office park. ●