No demolition delay

City council declines to reconsider funding for Horace Mann demolitions downtown

Historic facades ion the south side of 600-626 East Washington.
The Springfield City Council defeated a proposal March 7 to reconsider its previous decision granting Horace Mann Educators Corp. up to $600,000 in property tax revenues to tear down deteriorating hundred-year-old buildings in the downtown historic district.

But after the 6-3 council vote, Horace Mann officials left open the possibility for modifications to what the company described as a beautification project in the 600 block of East Washington Street.

The project – tearing down a building at 622 E. Washington that Horace Mann owns, buying the adjacent structure at 618 E. Washington, razing both buildings and establishing 28 surface parking spaces and green space – remains “on track,” Springfield attorney Anthony Schuering said on behalf of Horace Mann.

However, he said Horace Mann hasn’t had time to evaluate an alternate proposal presented the day before by the Downtown Springfield Heritage Foundation that would “stabilize” the buildings and put demolition on hold.

Mayor Jim Langfelder, who supports allocating up to $600,000 in tax-increment financing funds for the $1.9 million project, said an alternative to demolition is more likely for 618 E. Washington.

The council decided to not consider rescinding its Feb. 21 decision on TIF funding despite a warning from Landmarks Illinois, a Chicago-based nonprofit historic preservation advocacy group, that using TIF funds in a historic district would violate state law and open the city up to potential legal challenges.

Schuering has said the demolition wouldn’t violate the law because there’s no “prudent and feasible” alternative available anytime soon.

Despite being criticized by some council members for presenting an alternative at the last minute, foundation members gave the council a written proposal that said the historic buildings could be stabilized for $761,000 and marketed to potential developers rather than be torn down.

The foundation unveiled its proposal at the March 6 meeting of the Springfield Historic Sites Commission, an advisory panel appointed by the mayor.

Members of the commission, some saying they didn’t have enough information or didn’t see it as their role, declined the foundation’s request to take a stand opposing the proposed demolition of the buildings, despite encouragement to do so by Ward 7 Ald. Joe McMenamin.

Horace Mann already has a demolition permit for 622 E. Washington, but because of the status of 618 E. Washington as a “contributing” structure in the Central Springfield National Register Historic District, the company must wait until at least May to obtain a demolition permit for the second address.

“Downtown Springfield is littered with surface parking lots,” foundation board member Bruce Ferry, of Ferry and Associates Architects, told the commission.

A street lined with surface parking lots “creates disillusionment for the urban streetscape” and makes pedestrians less willing to walk down that street to reach restaurants or other parts of downtown, Ferry said.

The building at 622 E. Washington actually represents two connected buildings with addresses at 622, 624 and 626 E. Washington, and the oldest was constructed in 1877, according to foundation member Steve Myers.

After learning that the two East Washington structures – each 100 years old or more – were within the historic district, Ward 8 Ald. Erin Conley asked the council to reconsider February’s 7-2 vote in favor of TIF dollars for the project. Conley previously voted in favor.

Schuering previously told the council that the buildings were not in the historic district. He later apologized for the mistake.

Conley, McMenamin and Ward 6 Ald. Kristin DiCenso voted in favor of having a debate to reconsider the TIF spending vote. Voting “no” were Chuck Redpath of Ward 1, Shawn Gregory of Ward 2, Roy Williams Jr. of Ward 3, Lakeisha Purchase of Ward 5, Jim Donelan of Ward 9 and Ralph Hanauer of Ward 10. John Fulgenzi of Ward 4 didn’t vote.

Heritage Foundation members estimated it would cost $275,000 to buy the building at 618 E. Washington and repair roofs and remove mold and asbestos at both addresses.

It would cost an additional $486,000 for facade renovation at 622 E. Washington and for demolition of the back side of that building to create eight parking spaces for Horace Mann’s use, the foundation estimated.

The stabilization, which would include removing the 1970s-era facade on 622 E. Washington to reveal the original facade from the late 1800s, could be financed with TIF funds, Ferry said. The foundation hasn’t made a formal proposal to the city on an alternate plan for TIF funding.

The stabilization and pause in demolition would give the foundation a chance to attract potential developers willing to fully restore and occupy the buildings, which have been vacant for more than 10 years, Ferry said.

Daniel Hamilton, another attorney representing Horace Mann, said the company already has spent almost $2 million to purchase and renovate the historic three-story Witmer-Schuck building at 628 E. Washington. That building is at the southwest corner of East Washington and South Seventh streets and is immediately east of the two structures the company wants to raze.

The Witmer-Schuck building, originally constructed in the 1860s, now houses a Horace Mann-affiliated insurance agency on the first floor. The building includes a total of four furnished apartments on the second and third floors as temporary housing for visiting corporate executives and newly hired employees.

The parking spaces would be used by residents and those who work in the Witmer-Schuck building. Some spaces would be leased to other downtown businesses, and Hamilton said the spots also would be available for free parking on nights and weekends.

Dean Olsen

Dean Olsen is a senior staff writer for Illinois Times. He can be reached at:
[email protected], 217-679-7810 or @DeanOlsenIT.

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