The state moves in. There goes the neighborhood
February 22, 1980
Here I anticipated the likely effects of the State of Illinois's decision to build its large revenue department building near but not adjacent to the statehouse downtown. (The actual results I described in this piece, published three and a half years later.) By 1980 that neighborhood was valuable less for what it was than what it might become again with intelligent land use controls and imaginative developers.
I lived in that part of town in my youth. (The restaurant mentioned below, the Rainbow Connection, was built on the lot where once stood the house I lived in during high school.) But while my dismay at what was to happen there was compounded by nostalgia for the place, it was not caused by it.
There are only a relative handful of predator species among the native North American mammals. They tend to be neither numerous nor especially efficient, not because nature finds them repugnant but because if they were they would quickly exhaust their food supply and so eat themselves to their own doom.
The exceptions are the various subspecies of civilized human predator, who manage unfortunately to be both numerous and efficient. Of these, the real estate developer has perhaps the fewest checks on his appetites. This was made plain in the February 15 edition of Springfield’s State Journal-Register by Dan Cronin, the SJR’s business editor, who sought to describe some of the changes Springfieldians can look forward to on the city’s near west side following construction there of the state’s new Department of Revenue building. The DOR building will be a mammoth addition to the Springfield cityscape—a giant anthill that will house 3,000 workers in some half-million square feet spread over a ten-acre site. It is both the largest and the latest of a series of office buildings expanding from the Capitol complex westward into a largely residential neighborhood between downtown and Springfield High School along Jefferson, Washington, Adams, and Monroe streets.
So large is the DOR project that, as Cronin notes, it “is bound to switch the thrust of the downtown business area to the west and will cause definite changes in the core area of the city.” But what kinds of changes exactly? Cronin offers a few hints about what those changes might be, though he is less helpful in analyzing what they may mean; business editors everywhere usually examine the social issues raised by development with all the acuity one might expect in a Pravda editor faced with the task of explaining the failure of the latest five-year plan.
For example, Cronin reports, “Some developers already have acquired land in the area, but they probably will refrain from any improvements until the new state building has been completed.” Were I asked to write my own style guide for newspaper editors, one of my new rules would be to always wrap the word “improvements” in quotation marks when using it to describe real estate development, on grounds that “improvements” of this sort are to municipal progress what the U.S. Army’s “pacification” programs were to the cause of peace in Vietnam.
A walk along West Jefferson, Washington, or Adams, will reveal that a number of “improvements” have been made already. As Cronin notes, there are a number of new restaurants in the neighborhood—restaurants and office buildings having much the same relationship as fleas and dogs. Most are fast food joints, though not all. The classy Rainbow Connection just opened on a previously residential block of North Lewis, completely equipped with a fancy name and S-2 zoning; owners of the lot just north of it, which opens onto another now-residential block of Washington Street, want it spot-zoned commercial too, to allow a second restaurant to open.(What is true of children is true of cities: when they break out in spots, it’s a sure sign that they’re ill.)
But new franchise fooderies aren’t the only change in the area, and they certainly aren’t the most grievous. As Cronin reports, “A main concern is to provide sufficient parking space in the area so problems now confronting downtown businesses are not duplicated.” The Washington Bicentennial Building at Washington and Pasfield (a horrid pile that looks like a parking ramp with windows) provides a good example. When it was built, its owners put a two-level parking ramp on the ground floors. Because of this innovation, they did not expect to need to provide the usual accessory off-street parking, and so did not ask for a zoning classification that would allow it. They later repented, returned to the city to ask for zoning approval to convert seven or eight lots scattered within a two- block area of the building into parking lots. According to city officials, most if not all of these lots (maybe a half-dozen of which had houses on them) had been or were in the process of being cleared when the request was made; when the city turned them down, the owners built the lots anyway.
What is true of apples and barrels is also true of neighborhoods. Many property owners have opened illegal backyard parking lots, so many that the city won’t know exactly how many until they complete a survey of the district. It is, of course, one way to “provide sufficient parking space in the area,” but though their initiative is praiseworthy the results are not.
Such misdemeanors aside, the “problems” the near west side developers are so anxious to avoid do not include any lack of parking spaces, of which there are some 17,000 in the central business and Statehouse districts. The real problems downtown, such as visual blight and an eroding tax base, are caused ultimately by developers who stupidly tear down usable buildings to make room for cars at a time when the private auto is daily becoming less and less tenable as a means of transportation to and from work. Downtown Springfield’s biggest problem is developers who are building for 1970 instead of 1990.
Most of the neighborhood between the capitol complex and Springfield High School remains zoned R-4 residential, a fact which adds irony to the insanity now being practiced there. Cronin notes that unnamed real estate interests predict “a good amount of multi-family construction in the area” someday. But most of the district is covered with multifamily housing now, mostly in the form of older two-story frame houses divided into flats. What we face, then, is the prospect of developers tearing down multi-family housing in order to build multi-family housing—which (and this is the rationale of the otherwise irrational escapade) is likely to be less well-built, possibly less energy efficient and certainly more expensive than what is there now.
With the costs of commuting going up, with the economics of rehabilitation having been proven feasible, with the acknowledged coming demand for in-town housing, the casual destruction of this stock of housing so close to downtown and the Statehouse is nuts. In fact, it’s for that very reason that I suffer the same ambivalence about real estate developers that I feel toward any sociopath: One minute I think we ought to throw them all into the slammer, and the next minute I think that what they really need is professional help.
Cronin observes that there is no plan to control this explosion of commercial development in this part of the central city. That news brought to mind the advice of the American Institute of Architects’ PR-UDAT (Preservation—Reuse Urban Design Assistance Team) that visited Springfield last year. The PR-UDAT investigators complained that “there is an undue amount of important . . . land area devoted to surface parking.” They also said that state expansion plans “do not appear to be sensitive to the needs of an active, twenty-four hour downtown.” “Levered by strong business sector pressure,” they went on, “the State for many years . . . concentrated more and more major agencies contiguous to the core area . . . to counteract the exodus of people as a result of Downtown deterioration.” The long-range implications of that policy, the team concluded, “are disturbing.” Indeed they are. Once greeted as a cure for the deterioration of Springfield’s downtown, state expansion has become its cause. ●