The Object of Enterprise
Springfield's downtown gets out of bed, walks
October 29, 1981
Downtown Springfield, you would have thought, had a better chance of surviving the car and the mall than most in Illinois. The courthouse square is only seven blocks from the Illinois statehouse, major Lincoln sites are likewise near, and its office buildings were filled with government offices. And for a time it appeared that the city center would survive the loss of its retail and dining businesses. It was hard to write this optimistic look at then-current development plans with crossed fingers, but I did it. It turned out, of course, that new buildings was not what downtown Springfield needed.
“It is the object of enterprise which equally becomes the actual settler or the speculator, to become interested in purchasing property in this place.” That line was written 155 years ago by James Matheny, who was advertising lots in downtown Springfield. Matheny became a rich man by taking his own advice, and when the City of Springfield recently advertised for projects to be funded under its ambitious new tax increment financing scheme, it proved that Mathenyism lives on. As announced last week, the new downtown development plan could result in as much as S200 million in new construction during the next ten years. Medical offices. Shopping malls. Office buildings. Apartment complexes. Parking ramps. Hotels. Condominiums. A supermarket. Skyways. I got goose pimples just reading about it.
There is much to applaud in the new plan. The nearly three dozen projects which comprise the plan, although developed separately, generally conform to the latest land use plans being drawn by the local planning commission. The plan places great emphasis on housing, from apartment towers for the elderly to garden apartments and condos—anywhere from 700 to 1,000 in all, by my count. It offers intriguing new green spaces. Most miraculous of all, it calls for the construction of a new office building on the site of an existing parking lot at Capitol and Third. Imagine! Destroying a parking lot to put up a building! I may not move to Oak Park after all.
The city has refused to publicly name the developers, possibly to spare them being showered on the street with rose petals thrown by a grateful citizenry. Close inspection reveals several of the projects to be familiar. There’s Charles Gramlich’s restoration of the Hickox House, Bill Cellini’s Radisson Hotel project, the State Journal-Register’s new office building, and the conversion by Nile Marriott of the old Elks Club.
It’s also possible that developers requested anonymity to avoid being publicly branded as loonies, however. Several of the projects strike me as impossibly ambitious. (Example: a trio of high-rises running north of Jefferson Street between First and Fourth which would house as many as 400 apartments, to be built beginning in 1991.) Indeed, aspects of the new plan put me in mind of that locally celebrated downtown master development plan cooked up by a consultant to the Springfield Central Area Development Association in 1970. That scheme showed a downtown developed out of all existence. The Old State Capitol was virtually the only recognizable structure left standing in a forest of parking ramps, office and apartment towers, roof gardens, and aerial pedestrian walkways. It looked like the offspring of a rape of downtown by White Oaks Mall.
The plan did not include complete cost estimates, but I figure that building it today would cost the equivalent of the gross national product of Mexico. A few elements of this dream survive in the new plan, but the newer one is more sensible in every way, and unlike its predecessor it even has a chance of getting built.
I like downtown, and have suffered with its recent decline. But I’m not sure whether I should be happy if the new projects actually get built or happy if they don’t. Over the years I’ve come to see “development,” Springfield-style, as the close cousin of “pacification,” Vietnam-style.
The consultant hired to package the new project has described it as a “public-private partnership,” as if that were something unique. The whole fiber and sinew of city government, going back to the days of Mr. Matheny, has been devoted to helping business make money, just as the whole fiber and sinew of the rest of us has been devoted to undoing the resulting damage, whether by pushing for zoning and building code reform in the 1920s, or yammering more recently against spot zoning and parking lot blight.
The tax increment approach has been lauded because it enables such projects to proceed unfettered by the strings that are attached to federal grants and loans. (Some federal money will still be used in some projects, of course.) Now I bow to no man, not even Rotarians, in my dislike of the feds’ paternalism, their delays, their nit-picking that adds to the cost of projects without improvng them. But I recall too that the reason the federal government became so heavily involved in urban redevelopment in the first place was that the private sector was too timid or too racist to put its money into central cities, even sound ones like Springfield’s.
I also recall that this disdain for federal money didn’t show itself until it became clear that there was going to be a lot less of it. Most of the good things that were done downtown in the 1970s were done, wholly or in part, with federal money, from Near North Village to the rehabilitation of historic structures. It was the private sector, drawing on local and/or state resources, which brought us bank expansions, the Prairie Capital Convention Center, White Oaks Mall, and Mr. A. Ray Smith. I mean, do we really want to turn the private sector loose with money in its pockets on a Saturday night?
In the recent past we relied on city hall, acting as policeman, to protect us from the ravages of the unfettered entrepreneurial spirit. But now that the city and the private sector are partners (I would have chosen a more intimate word), who is left to protect us? Consider the problem of preservation. Downtown Springfield harbors a wealth of old buildings which constitute a much-admired national historic district. I quiver therefore when I read of plans to “renovate” that marvelous block of Sixth Street just off the Old Capitol Square which is one of the finer assemblages of 19th century commercial buildings in the state. These buildings are marred only by the scars of the last attack of renovation in the late 1960s, when SCADA went on a rampage and urged owners to transform storefronts so as to resemble restrooms in one of the more modern airports. I regard it as an ominous sign that one of the thirty-three projects announced by the city is the plan by Blaine Stuches to construct a drive-in bank on Fifth Street atop the corpses of two historic buildings. This is a city, not a knacker’s yard.
I complain not from a nostalgic attachment to old architecture merely because it is old, nor am I opposed in principle to the razing of old buildings and their replacement by new ones. Buildings have life expectancies much like people, and it is sad but inevitable that even the best of each must eventually die. If I rail against the wrecker’s ball, it’s only because old buildings nowadays are nearly always replaced by buildings which are more ugly, more shabbily built, and more expensive. This is change, but it is hardly progress. This is not just a matter of changing styles, but a retreat from anything like style at all. Buildings are designed these days for quick profit, and are not expected to last much more than twenty years; 1 have a tennis racket that’s older than that. If any of the buildings erected in downtown Springfield since 1970 emerge on some historic register fifty years hence, it will be because they will have acquired value as artifacts which they presently lack as architecture. Faced with a choice between looking at an empty lot or some tacky new apartment house, I would rather look at the latter. But I will continue to prefer to live in a well-maintained building from the ’20s or ’30s.
The city council has been disingenuous on this point. The city is delighted to provide incentives to help restore an historic building; a half-dozen projects in the new plans involve such work. But what the city offers developers with one hand it snatches away with the other. It offers low-interest loans to restore old buildings—and enforces a building code that makes it hugely expensive. It costs thousands in increased property taxes to improve a building—but only a few bucks for a permit to tear it down. Etcetera.
Worse, the city encourages, albeit indirectly, the broader social trends that in turn shape the market. For example, virtually every one of the major buildings lost in recent years was lost to the automobile and its spawn such as parking lots and drive-in banks. I am assured that city hall is “sensitive” to the proliferation of surface parking lots downtown. Off-street parking ramps similar to the 1,200-car ramp proposed as part of a major new office complex on Washington Street are among the projects fundable under the city’s tax increment program.
But that’s not nearly enough. The present city council’s sole triumph to date has been to resist importunities to convert the site of the burned-out Herbert Georg building into a parking lot. After two and a half years the council has yet to amend the zoning code which not only allows but in some cases actually encourages destruction of existing buildings for parking. Nor has it raised parking fees to discourage auto use. (A recent rise in the basic overtime fine to $2 was made mostly for administrative convenience.) Worst of all, the council shows no sign of understanding that parking policy is merely one facet of broader downtown transportation policy.
The solution to parking problems is not to build better parking lots but to reduce the need for them. Although the mass transit district is facing possible cutbacks in service (pending the outcome of a tax hike referendum) and although the Madison Street corridor now a-building will funnel thousands of cars into the central city every working day, the city has no coherent policy at all that deals with parking fees, car pooling, mass transit, lot conversions, and the like. Without a constant and coordinated effort, downtown may easily end up looking like West Jefferson Street near the new state revenue center, an asphalt waste that is the visible symbol of the city’s failure to come to grips with the automobile.
So I hold my breath, hoping for the best out of this new scheme but not really expecting to see it. Tax increment financing is a useful tool to pay for certain kinds of development. But as has been made clear over and over again, paying for it is the easy part of development. ●