A Problem of Scale

The interests of  City and city often are at odds

Illinois Times

February 25, 1977

An early piece in which I first articulated an insight, not original to me, that the corporate City of Springfield—and every other municipality in Illinois—which is presumed to function in these cases as the arbiter among vested interests, is itself a vested interest. Needing to balance its books while providing services to voters who are loathe to pay for them in taxes on their property, city leaders are captive to development.

 

"It's a problem of scale. You've got the interests of the city as a whole against the interests of a few people. When that happens, politicians tend to vote in favor of the aggregate, especially when they're elected on an at-large basis."

 

The man doing the talking was Randy Kucera, associate professor of public administration at Sangamon State University. Kucera is a very brainy fellow, an intellectual by training and inclination, the kind of person who can describe a cigarette habit as a "dependable variable" and get away with it. He specializes in figuring out how organizations work.

 

The organization being discussed in this case was the Springfield city council. I had described to Kucera a zoning case that'd come up before the city council a few weeks earlier. Two Springfield land developers, Mark Nathanson and Charles Robbins, had petitioned the council to rezone 4.6 acres of land on Sangamon Avenue near the Northgate subdivision to a "highway business service district." They wanted the B-l zoning in order to build a 28,500-square-foot Eagle supermarket, Number 772 in that 28-state chain.

 

I thought it was an important story. The subject of the hearing was zoning, but the issue was land— who owns it, who decides how it's used, who profits by its use. The developers, speaking through their attorney, Robert Cohen, talked about jobs, about increased tax revenues for the city, about convenience to shoppers. Opponents of the project— some of the 127 people who'd signed petitions melodrama.

 

Besides, as I suspected, the story did not lie in the personalities of the actors anyway. That was where Kucera came in. He affirmed the notion, only half-formed, that the city— that is, the corporate City of Springfield—which is presumed to function in these cases as the arbiter among vested interests, is itself a vested interest.

 

Springfield's five commissioners are elected as stewards of the corporate city and pledged -to look after its interests. The are, in effect, the city's board of directors. As does any board, they must secure the corporation's revenue sources, defend its territory against the encroachments of competitors, and expand its sphere of influence when such expansion is advantageous—in sum, protect Springfield's share of the market in the city business.

 

Their obligations in this regard are as much political as legal. Should they fail to stem the loss of jobs and business to the suburbs, for example, they must either squeeze a few more dollars out of a shrunken tax base by raising taxes or reduce municipal services—prospects for which neither politicians nor the public, for different reasons, have much enthusiasm. The corporate city is the child of the "People"—Kucera's aggregate—and it is the interests of the People that successful politicians must hold paramount.

 

As the developers' lawyer shrewdly pointed out, construction of the new supermarket would allow the City of Springfield to increase its territory (through annexation), its treasury (by addition of an estimated $49,000 annually in combined sales and real estate taxes), and its economic base (by creation of from 50 to 70 new jobs). These were sweet temptations indeed. After forcing the developers to accept a less intensive zoning (S-2 instead of B-1) and a few other concessions typical in such cases, the commissioners cast their votes four to one (Commissioner James Dunham voting "No") in favor of the developers. "It is," as Commissioner Pat Ward noted, "in the interests of the city that we do this."

 

But was the new supermarket in the best interests of the neighborhood? The council is supposed to act as the advocate of the people (small "p"); as Commissioner Frank Madonia explained, "The people living here have a right to be concerned and they have nobody else except the city council to protect their rights." But when the interests of the city and the neighborhood of people and the People conflict, as some thought they did in this case, the council must act as the corporate city's board and vote on behalf of the city. It's a problem, as Kucera pointed out, of scale.

 

There's no hint of corruption in any of this. If the council members are caught in a conflict of interest, it's the conflict between their roles as protectors of the rights of individual citizens and their broader responsibilities as stewards of the corporate city. The commissioners are not, as is sometimes charged, captive to any developer. They are, however, captive to the need for development. □

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.

[STILL A-BUILDING]

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 

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.

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