Springfield, home of wasted opportunities

The pending demolition of the old downtown YMCA to create yet another vacant lot will be the latest in a string of similar failures. The YWCA block, immediately north of the Governor's Mansion, was the worst.

The state of Illinois failed in a 40-year plan and Springfield cajoles the state into a city takeover to "get something done." An Indianapolis developer submits a mixed-use, street-oriented development, which any city in American would support. But the mayor nixed the project because it was "too big" with no real effort to negotiate a responsible and reasonable TIF allocation. Instead, we get another empty lot (now called a park) off the tax rolls and a drain on the city budget.

The most important takeaway here is the lack of any consistent use of TIF funds to promote investment that replenishes the TIF. A review of the downtown TIF funds will show that most of the funding has gone into the non-taxpaying projects, including $5 million for the new YMCA building.

In the fall of 2019 there was a proposal, with a rather uncertain origin, for a downtown campus for UIS that would require a four-block urban renewal approach from the 1960s. Fortunately, UIS is now moving in a more positive direction. But the initial proposal of "planning by surprise" is something we have seen before. The 2003 proposed "vista" to the ALPLM, which would have removed the north block of the Old State Capitol plaza, was a similar urban removal approach with no real purpose.

Just before last year's municipal election, the mayor touted a new hotel development for the downtown, rushed support for it with a TIF allocation, only to have a good reporter turn up the information that the developer had no financial capacity. For a project of this magnitude to have city support with virtually no due diligence from the city is municipal incompetence.

Another failure is the stalled renovation of two downtown buildings at Sixth and Monroe. The issue here is also the appropriate use of TIF funds when projects also qualify for federal historic tax credits. TIF funding allocations should be used to supplement federal tax credits, not replace them.

There are many causes for these failures, but one in particular stands out – the lack of a professional planning and development department in city government. The services provided by the county are essentially that of a zoning administrator, not an economic development planner. Too many projects are poorly evaluated and fail to meet professional and accepted standards and policy goals. This is particularly important for TIF projects, which require a lot of skill to evaluate a real estate pro forma and know what the real funding gap is. Instead, we seem to get projects approved for politically connected applicants rather than those based upon sound economic and policy analysis.

It's time to call a halt to the proposed demolition of the YMCA building, which has been determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The city/YMCA should be soliciting proposals for the redevelopment of this building. The proposed demolition funding should be used to subsidize redevelopment, rather than waste a renewable resource.

Jane Jacobs, a champion of urban development, made the cogent observation that "new ideas need old buildings." Most of America's tech companies started in old buildings, which Jane Jacobs saw as the true innovation incubators. Renovating old buildings also has substantial economic and environmental benefits. Renovating buildings creates more jobs than building new buildings and these additional wages are circulated in the community.

Much of the material cost in new construction leaves the community and the state. From an environmental viewpoint, retrofitting old buildings is a key component of urban climate change policies, another planning tool missing from Springfield. There is no need to rush this demolition. There are plenty of examples of old YMCAs that sat vacant for a while and were successfully renovated. The state of Illinois has plenty of other vacant lots around the Capitol complex that need to be developed that are higher priorities. There is no funding in place for redevelopment here, which was the same issue as the YWCA block north of the governor's mansion. It's time to learn from the mistakes of the past and make the redevelopment of the YMCA a cornerstone of the downtown revitalization, instead of another planning failure.

Mike Jackson of Springfield is a preservation architect with a 30+-year career with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. He has been a leader on numerous state and national organizations and a champion of the preservation of roadside architecture, urban revitalization and sustainability. He currently directs the Building Technology Heritage Library, a project of the Association for Preservation Technology.