A Pretty Stable Part of Town
Making a new downtown of Springfield's old buildings
February 18, 1993
Springfield's downtown was still alive and flourishing when I was a boy in the 1950s, and I found it the most diverting playground any boy could imagine. Like most Springfieldians my age, I mourned its demise the way I might mourn the of a beloved family member. I wrote often about how the city might revive downtown. Sadly, the town's officials and its landowners did last the thing they should have done first, which was save for reuse the stock of old buildings that no mall-maker could ever match.
Adaptive reuse on a large scale would not have saved my downtown but it might have made it possible to build a new one in its place, literally. We'll never know.
The seminar was scheduled to begin in minutes, and I was having a sock crisis. I had rashly chosen argyles that morning that clashed hideously with my tie. Ten years ago I would have had my choice of a half dozen shops within a block's walk of the Old Capitol at which I might buy replacements in a sock emergency. That day I found them at Osco's, in the aisle with the duct tape and the chewy dog bones and the clothes pins.
Osco's is the closest thing to a department store, indeed to any kind of store left in downtown Springfield. Conventional wisdom holds that our small-city downtowns are not dying, only changing. But the 19th century downtown of beloved memory has changed to the point of death.
That said, we must acknowledge that downtown Springfield is doing better than most. A few projects got built in the last 15 years and a few valuable properties have been saved. A recent example is the conversion by Charles Delano of the former Roland's store into law offices—about the only local enterprise not facing competition from national franchisers.
But the extent of the cultural shift away from downtown can be measured in Delano's remark to the State Journal-Register that the corner of 5th and Adams as a "pretty stable part of town," real estate investment-wise. Such projects are like heroic efforts to salvage heirlooms from a burning house; the effort is worth it but when things cool down you still don't have a place to live.
The fact that men's hosiery must be purchased in a drug store is one of the reasons that three separate downtown advocacy groups undertook a national search for a "facilitator" to lead revitalization efforts. Springfield is hardly alone in this plight; a statewide Downtowns of Illinois Associated was formed this summer, founded by the same go-getting consultant that some of Springfield's downtown boosters want to hire to work here.
After some twenty years of trial and much error, planners developers, and city officials have come to broad agreements about how to save American downtowns. Doing it is hard—it requires consensual planning involving both public and private sectors and the flexibility to accommodate multiple uses—and the risks are large. A larger question thus suggests itself: Is downtown worth saving?
So intertwined are our common images of downtown with buildings and streetscapes that we easily confuse what is downtown preservation and what is building preservation. Consultant Lawrence Alexander of the New York-based Downtown Idea Exchange derides what he calls "the old, nostalgia Main Street stuff" that so often animates downtown preservationists.
Laurie Scott, a planner by training who now directs a new regional Main street Partnership involving three small cities in the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor. Scott insists that downtown buildings have value as more than icons. She notes that downtowns (including the smaller ones) possess potentially valuable housing stock in their under-used upper stories; Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, and Washington D.C. are only some of the larger business districts that are slowly turning department stores into apartment stores.
Downtown Springfield's stock of buildings is the only marketable asset that downtown has that no other part of town has (or ever will have). Those buildings gave downtown ambiance, architectural distinction, and historical sense but they also offer development opportunities more interesting than conventional offices.
* Chicago's DePaul University is moving into the vacant Goldblatt's on State Street in the heart of downtown, and Roosevelt University occupies the otherwise orphaned Auditorium, and plans are underway to convert a historic skyscraper into student housing; the two between them have revitalized the derelict South Loop. (SSU planners please note.)
* In Bloomington, they are converting vacant upper floors to condos.
* In Skokie, town officials used tax increment financing to build new three-story "home shops" with small commercial space in the ground floor and residential space above, opportunities of the sort that can be had in existing Springfield buildings; the houses would be taxed as if they were houses, and are expected to appeal to the growing number of self-employed who now work out of home who want to live in work. Only cumbersome zoning and building codes and nervous banks make it hard to do the same with existing period structures such as Springfield used to have by the dozen.
"Nostalgia and historic preservation is the big thing now," adds Alexander. "For a while it was Rouse malls, then it was pedestrian malls. Every five years you get a whole new set of code words." The Chicago Metro Section of the American Planning Association's recent seminar, "Designing Old Towns for New Towns," spoke of "evoking such intangible notions as community, place, activity, and nostalgia." Such inchoate yearnings can and usually do lead to inchoate responses. Schaumburg, the classic mall-turned-edge-city outside Chicago, has been looking for developers to build an "Olde Schaumburg Centre" to create a "focal point" for the town.
Matching bus benches and lampposts again. One scornful columnist suggested a marketing slogan for the new place: "It's not real, but then it's not messy either." Edward Slipek Jr. is one of the more percipient journalists covering these trends, reported in the Richmond, Virginia, daily that "after muddling through urban 'removal,' downtown malls, and a dose of Rouse, Richmond has ended up with what folks wanted all along—a suburb." ●