“People, not Pontiacs!”
Planning for a courts complex that won’t be built
October 8, 1981
The saga of what became known as the “Y” Bock—the site near the statehouse of the long-demolished Hotel Abraham Lincoln and the doomed YWCA—has been unfolding since 1978. I would write several pieces about it, including this one. The worst thing about it is the lame title—one of mine, I’m afraid.
Honestly, I didn't know whether to cheer or to boo. On September 30 the Illinois Supreme Court ordered that the State of Illinois' petition to condemn the YWCA building at Fifth and Jackson in downtown Springfield be dismissed. The state wanted the Y's land to make room for a courts complex first proposed back in 1975. But the court ruled that the state, which has already bought and leveled nearly an entire city block for the project, had already acquired an "excessive" amount of land. The Y would stand.
Any victory over the state is sweet. Any ruling which reins the state's imperialist impulses is doubly welcome in Springfield, where the state traditionally has behaved as if it were the lord of the manor and its capital city were the gamekeeper's daughter. I was cheered by the ruling, but only partly because the court had reaffirmed the principle that public money may not be used by public agencies to condemn land without a proven public need for it. I was happy mainly because it meant I wouldn't have to read any more press releases from the YWCA.
The Y has a slogan which reads, "It's the 'W’ that makes the difference." They even underline the "W" in their name in their press releases—only one of the ways the Y's self-image interfered with coherence during its five-year campaign. The Y's court battle with the state had come to resemble a pulp romance. We were treated to cries of outraged virtue (a year ago the Y's executive director said, "We're not angels, but we have been sited [sic] as one of the best administered organizations in the history of voluntarism"). We were warned of the ravening menace of the state (the Y didn't actually cry "rape!" but some of its press releases came close). We even got hysterics and swooning; when the state filed condemnation papers in 1980 after negotiations on a selling price failed, the Y said, "Anyone who has taken advantage of any social service organization like the Boy Scouts, Salvation Army, Red Cross, anyone who has ever needed the services of a hospital, or gone to a library . . . YOU'VE BEEN PUT ON NOTICE THAT YOU DON'T MATTER ANYMORE!"
There were principles at stake, and the Y did not hesitate to appropriate several of them in defense of their case, with the result that the agency came variously to be seen as a champion of women's rights, historic preservation, voluntarism, community service, and downtown Springfield. But the issue at stake in the Y's first skirmish with the state was not voluntarism or preservation but money. The state had originally offered $650,000 for the Y's building. A jury in May, 1980, reckoned it to be worth $1.3 million; the Y, claiming that it would have cost $2.2 million to replace it 'way back in 1976, appealed.
As Y director Carolyn Miller Coffman explained last week, "The main reason we wanted to stay here was because we weren't offered enough money to replace the building." Had they gotten their price, in other words, they would have hied to the suburbs where their members would not have to cope with the intricacies of parallel parking. Worse, the Y last year defended itself against the state's power of eminent domain by reminding us that the Y is "not some new radical group"—the implication being that the unwarranted appropriation of property belonging to a new radical group would be okay. Self-interest is one thing; disingenuity another.
But if the Y behaved dishonestly, the state behaved far worse. It would take a writer of greater skill than I possess to cram into a few sentences the full measure of stupidity, arrogance, and sheer numbskullery demonstrated by the sponsors of the courts complex. The initial concept sounded to me like the sort of thing that gets dreamed up by the boys in the locker room after racquetball: a sort of criminal justice laboratory, in which the Sangamon County circuit courts would be housed with state appellate courts and either a new law school or paralegal training center, all equipped with the latest in data processing gear. The broader purpose of the complex apparently was to learn ways to make justice quick as well as sure.
The notion made me nervous—I can think of no keener threat to the republic than an efficient judiciary—but it never mattered because the project was doomed from the start. Law schools, to pick one, are expensive, and establishing a new one in the capital was bound to excite institutional jealousies among the state's turf-conscious universities. The state was in the process of approving a master development plan for the Capitol Complex when the courts complex was first proposed; since the plan made no provision for such a courts complex, it was put outside the boundaries of the official Capitol Complex, in effect making a liar of the state, which at least saved journalists the trouble.
The gravest defect of all, however, was the assumption that Sangamon County would move its circuit courts into such a complex were one ever built. The county had built a new county building in 1966, and while the court facilities therein fail to meet the magisterial standards of the local bench, they are superior to those in most Illinois counties. Even were they not, no one had ever bothered to actually study the point: the state could produce neither a program statement nor a needs study. More amazingly, at no point in the five years during which the project has been under way did the county commit itself to do anything more binding than discuss possible financial terms of a move, even though the county was to occupy roughly 50 percent of the new complex.
The state, in short, had acted like a bridegroom who made a down payment on a honeymoon cottage before proposing to his sweetheart. In April—for reasons not yet made clear—the county formally "withdrew" from the project. The Supreme Court, in its YWCA opinion, averred that even before the county's withdrawal, "The petition attempting to take the entire block should have been dismissed as an attempt to take a 'grossly excessive' amount of land." The county's April vote merely "reassure[d] us that no necessity for the condemnation of land for a new circuit court facility ever did exist."
The state had spent $3.3 million of the taxpayers' money buying land for a courts complex which the county didn't want and for which there was never a proven need, and it did so without getting so much as a solid "maybe" in advance from its principal tenant. In the process it leveled a movie house, an insurance office, a small factory, a drive-in bank (a nice irony, that, considering that the bank tore down a church to put up its drive-in), a rental haberdashery, and a muscle salon. Most painfully of all, it also destroyed the vacant Abe Lincoln Hotel. The scars from these injuries were graveled over and the land converted into another of the state's "temporary" parking lots—an act which simultaneously eroded Springfield's tax base and created an eyesore in the heart of the city. The only consolation for distressed locals is that the governor, whose mansion sits across the street, has to look at the damned thing too.
The henchman for this dirty bit of business was the Capital Development Board. If Tennyson were governor, he might say, "Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to build and die." There is a significant body of local opinion that regards the CDB as the flushest collection of prepaid, prioritized, prime-rate, four-wheel-drive jerks who ever sat down to sup at a public trough, and on this point I am inclined to agree.
Confronted with such a blunder, one's first impulse is to look for somebody to lynch, or to vote out of office. But the principals are beyond the reach of legal retribution. Somebody owes us, however. I suggest that the state donate that land to the city for use as a public park, along with enough money to landscape and equip it—making it a place of rest for the strolling tourist, a lunch-hour refuge for the state worker, an oasis for the city dweller. Should the state fail to make this gesture of atonement to Springfield, I suggest a public campaign, modeled on the famous tea bag mailing of 1978. We should all mail a pebble to the governor with the plea that he convert that rocky feculence into something green and useful. Land for people, not Pontiacs! Greenery, not gravel! Think of it! We could even name it after Don Glickman, the director of the CDB, just to show him that there's profit in building as well as destroying. ●