One of the architectural firm’s 2001 conceptions of the Vista would have cleared the buildings on the block north of the Old State Capitol to provide a clear view of Union Station.

When I heard about the "beautification project" to demolish two historic buildings on East Washington to make a "green space" surface parking lot, it reminded me of something. Had I heard this story before? Oh yes, I finally remembered, the 2001-2002 "Vista Block" proposal.

That project seemed to come out of the blue, but really it came out of the back rooms of the Illinois General Assembly. On June 1, 2001, we learned that the legislature had approved $20 million to demolish all the buildings on the north side of the downtown square in order to provide an unobstructed view all the way from the Old State Capitol to the Union Station depot, used as a city visitor center, and to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, then under construction. City leaders were aghast and appalled. "It's the most startling thing I've heard in my 30 years as city historian," said Ed Russo, who headed the Sangamon Valley Collection at Lincoln Library. The proposed demolition then included the architecturally significant National City Bank building (recently occupied by PNC bank), and a National Register building on Sixth Street (currently occupied by Abe's Old Hat and other businesses), owned by Carolyn Oxtoby, who had preserved numerous other buildings on Sixth, including the one which houses Maldaner's restaurant.

"I always like to see less green and more buildings, especially in a downtown setting," Oxtoby said at a public meeting that December. "If we're going to be an urban environment, we've got to have the buildings." By then the Massachusetts architectural firm in charge of the project had presented several tamer concepts, which took down fewer buildings. In a letter to the editor of the SJ-R, Jerry Jacobson of the preservation organization Save Old Springfield, said the architects presented six options, but not the best one: "Do nothing," he wrote. "That would Save Our Square and Save Our Money."

The Vista plans were still alive, though with little enthusiasm for them, in February 2002, when a team of volunteer urban planners called the Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team (R/UDAT) arrived in Springfield, invited by the city and Mayor Karen Hasara, and the Springfield chapter of the American Institute of Architects. They were to focus on "New Dimensions for Downtown Springfield: Preserving the Past and Building the Future." Its final report dispatched the proposed Vista Block demolitions in a few sentences: "There are way too many holes in the historic fabric of the city's downtown to create another one. The other buildings in this block are 19th-century buildings in good condition. The National City Bank building, built in 1975, is an excellent example of modern architecture designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Razing the block would result in the loss of significant property tax revenue."

Little was heard of the demolition plans after that, and the Vista faded from view. But the R/UDAT planning team had plenty of other things to say about downtown Springfield. In 2012, the 10th anniversary of the planners' visit to downtown, the former mayor had a vivid memory. "I know they were horrified by all the surface parking lots," Karen Hasara told the SJ-R. Back then, the planners said, people complained about insufficient downtown parking, even though there were 29,300 spaces. "Convenient parking for most Springfield residents means that their space is within one block of the place where they work and within 50 feet of the store where they shop," the report said. "This is an unrealistic expectation."

The planners also lamented the city's lack of attention to historic preservation downtown, noting that 15 of the 81 buildings in the original 1978 historic district had been demolished. "The demolition of older commercial buildings and the lack of any substantial reinvestment in new buildings has become the community norm outside the historic district," the 2002 report quoted Mike Jackson, then the architectural historian for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

The struggle for downtown historic preservation goes on. People who want to demolish structures can make fixing them sound almost impossible, but saving old buildings is not that difficult. If there's a hole in the roof, you fix it. The building probably needed a new roof anyway. If it smells bad, you get rid of the smell. There's asbestos in old buildings, so you call an asbestos contractor to abate it, carefully and legally. If the place has been empty 10 years, it will probably take a few months to get it stabilized.

Once a historic building has been brought back to life, the town comes back to life a little more. With Anvil and Forge and Brewhaus already there, the 600 block of East Washington could develop a vibe, like East Adams. Diversity and history could join hands to make this an area for small businesses, restaurants and entertainment, like once was nearby. It could be called The Levee.

Fletcher Farrar is editor of Illinois Times.

Fletcher Farrar

Fletcher Farrar is the editor of Illinois Times .

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