Springfield, reimagined

The newest draft city plan is a good one

The Springfield city council has before it a draft of a new comprehensive city plan, City of Springfield Comprehensive Plan, “Forging a New Legacy,” intended to guide development in the capital city until 2037 or until a growing Chatham annexes it, whichever comes first. Compiled by the clever Santa’s elves at the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission, it’s quite a good plan, as city plans go, one that offers a number of cures for what ails the old town. I recommend it particularly to aldermen; were they and their successors to master its concepts and act accordingly, Springfield in 20 years will be, if not quite the city many of its residents dream of, at least a city that will not embarrass and frustrate them.

If only. Mayor “Sunny Jim” Langfelder, speaking on the release of the plan draft, said, “This document will truly shape Springfield’s land use and growth in our neighborhoods and how we help businesses develop and expand recreationally.” No, it won’t, because planners don’t decide how cities get built. The people who do decide – developers, land owners, bankers and, occasionally, mayors – regard such blueprints the way most people regard their minister’s advice about how to get into heaven.

The council recently voted to allow a 50-duplex subdivision out in a cornfield west of Springfield reachable only by a road that all agree is not up to standard. (Please note that when I say “council” I mean the council majority; not every member abets such folly.) The project shouldn’t have been approved, according to good planning practice; as the draft plan states on page 31, “Property currently undeveloped, particularly properties in outlying or planning boundary areas, should not be developed in the absence of necessary infrastructure.”

Springfield could soon have a better plan (if the city council doesn’t gut it) but what it needs even more is better tools to implement it. Local zoning and building regs are a generation out of date. So is use-based land regulation on which those regulations are largely based. A design review needs to be built into the process too.

Maybe it won’t matter much. A brand new Springfield was built west of MacArthur beginning in the 1960s, which gave the city a chance to do again what was good about the old city and not do what had been done wrong. But while vast tracts were built upon, they cannot be said to have been developed. The result is dreary and confusing streetscapes designed for cars rather than people and blighted by disconnected  buildings floating in a sea of asphalt, all laid out in ways that make inefficient use of land, energy, infrastructure, city services and travelers’ time. The city blew it, in short, and with population growth stagnant and the local economy wobbly, maybe Springfield will never again have a chance to rebuild on that scale.

Collectively, private property constitutes the public realm, and that public ought to have a bigger say in how it is developed to avoid public costs. The only times in 40 years that the city council listened to anyone other than developers was when neighborhood residents and property owners organized themselves into associations to push back on foolish proposals from developers and their handmaidens in traffic engineering.

While expanding the public’s role in the process couldn’t hurt, it promises only a faint hope of reform. As is the practice these days, the SSCPRC asked citizens what they want to see in their city. Such exercises are intended to confer political legitimacy to the plan-making process but seldom supply real guidance. Ask people what they want in their city and too many will ask for a pony – no crime, no traffic jams, a park across the street and a supermarket on the corner.

In addition to guiding the hands of decision makers, one of the purposes of city plans is to inspire and educate the public about what is possible. That’s what Daniel Burnham’s Plan for Chicago did, and what Myron West’s 1925 plan for Springfield tried to do. (And might do again; the authors of the new plan quote West extensively in support of their ideas.)

Planning, like government in general, is about making hard choices when you can’t have all you want. That’s what mayor and aldermen are for. But not only are many aldermen beholden to the development community for campaign cash, their roles as fiscal stewards fatally compromise their ability to act independently when it comes to development; as I argued in “Fiscalizing land use policy” (July 26, 2012) what is good for the City of Springfield thus often is not good for the city of Springfield. Making things worse, aldermanic government elevates the parochial to principle, so it is in no one’s interest to think of the city as a whole.

I’d like to be proved wrong, Maybe I will be. Until Springfield residents rise up to demand its implementation, the plan will be for them what tourism brochures are to the poor man – the only way they can see a place they’ve always dreamed of.  
Contact James Krohe Jr. at [email protected].

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