Dirt being moved and steel girders going up on the east side of South Ninth Street in downtown Springfield this summer mark the beginning of what the Sangamon County administrator calls a "once-in-a-generation opportunity."
A total of $127 million will be spent to establish a central transportation center called The Hub, consolidate government services on the first floor of the county building, 200 S. Ninth St., and create a new indoor gathering space for relaxation, cultural enrichment and historical recognition.The money also will fund the transfer of the county coroner's office and some sheriff's department functions to the former State Journal-Register burilding.
"It's a big, big commitment on our part," County Administrator Brian McFadden said of the work, one-third of which will be paid for by county government, with the rest from state and federal funds. Spearheaded by county government and supported by both Republican and Democratic elected officials in Springfield, Sangamon County, the Statehouse and Congress, the projects will be spread over a six-block area. The boundaries will be Washington Street on the north, Capitol Avenue on the south, South Ninth Street on the west and 11th Street on the east.
The work, to be completed by fall 2025, will include:
• A new Amtrak passenger rail station and improved Sangamon Mass Transit District transfer station, all connected by a glass-enclosed pedestrian skyway over the 10th Street rail corridor. The number of tracks will be expanded to two sets from one as part of railroad relocation of passenger and freight traffic away from the Third Street corridor;
• A four-level, 600-plus-space parking deck immediately north of the county building that will connect to The Hub and is to be used by county employees and people using the county building, transportation center and other visitors;
• A new, glass-enclosed entrance on the north side of the county building – where the Sheriff's Department entrance is now – which pedestrians will access through the entrance to The Hub. The county building's current entrance along Ninth Street eventually will close after 2025.
• $8.5 million in improvements to the county building that will make the more than 30-year-old structure more handicapped-accessible and move Traffic Court, part of the circuit clerk's office and the offices of the treasurer, recorder and supervisor of assessments from upper floors to the first floor for more convenient public use.
• $6.8 million to purchase and retrofit the three-story former State Journal-Register building, immediately south of the county building, to house Sangamon County's first-ever county-owned morgue, autopsy suite and offices for the county coroner and forensic pathologist, as well as larger evidence-storage areas and potential office areas for the county sheriff's office; and
• An enclosed County Square atrium inside and just beyond the entrance to The Hub, with a "Grand Stair" going up three stories and elevators for those who don't want to use the steps. The atrium will include seating for people to gather, enjoy food and drinks sold by a new cafe – with the vendor yet to be determined – and view free entertainment.
Sangamon County Board Chairman Andy Van Meter said County Square, to be built in the area where Adams Street sits immediately north of the county building, will be open every day and into the evening. Adams Street along the county building's north side will "completely disappear," he said, adding that security inside The Hub will be provided by the county.
"I'm not sure we have anything like this in our community," Van Meter said of The Hub. "It's intended to be a place where the community can feel comfortable gathering for leisure. It will be air-conditioned, so it will be comfortable year-round. It's also an area where we may be able to celebrate our community's artistic talents."
The timing of the project was a product of years-long efforts to consolidate the flow of rail traffic in Springfield, along with a bit of serendipity, Van Mater said.
"The railroad relocation is the real catalyst for it," he said. "We'll basically have a campus running from Capitol Avenue to Washington Street. The big benefit of centralizing transportation is it provides a more convenient opportunity for the community to take advantage of public transportation, and with $5-a-gallon gas, that alternative becomes more and more attractive."
The Hub is the most expensive project planned, with costs totaling $111.7 million. County government is covering about one-fourth of the cost, with $26.4 million coming from low-interest borrowing by county government.
The county's portion will be financed without an increase in property tax because the new borrowing will replace past debts that have been paid off, said Van Meter, a Springfield Republican.
Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker's bipartisan Rebuild Illinois program – financed with a doubling of the state's motor-fuel tax, a tax increase on cigarettes and expanded gambling revenues – will chip in another $6.8 million, and Springfield Mass Transit District will pay $2.05 million.
The Illinois Department of Transportation will contribute $28 million, with the remaining $48.4 million coming from federal transportation funds.
"We've had wonderful luck leveraging state and federal money, particularly on the transportation center," McFadden said, "and that's really how it should work."
The Hub's funding amounts to about 27% of the total $411 million cost of railroad relocation, he said.
Work on the former SJ-R building, informally known as Sangamon South, will focus on the first floor and lower level of the three-story building at Ninth Street and Capitol Avenue.
The county bought the 135,000-square-foot building, which was constructed in the early 1980s, from the newspaper's parent company, Gannett, at auction for $1.25 million in October 2021. The SJ-R moved its staff to rented space in the Quantum Centre at 421 South Grand Ave. W.
The county is paying about $4.1 million toward the total $6.8 million for Sangamon South, with federal COVID-19 relief funds and state funding covering the rest.
The six-block construction area includes a sheriff's department evidence storage garage, east of the county building and on the east side of the tracks, that is being torn down.
McFadden said costs associated with The Hub, county complex renovations and Sangamon South don't include any future cost to construct the potential one-story "activity center" for the general public that may be built on the garage site, or the future cost of a parking lot for the center on county-owned land across the street, on the south side of Capitol.
What will be inside
Except for county employees, people using the deck attached to The Hub will pay for pay for timed parking. People also can be dropped off at the front of the site on a new driveway off Ninth Street.
"Our data shows there are around 3,500 to 4,000 people who will traverse that area on a daily basis, and that's a very significant pedestrian traffic count for a community our size," Van Meter said.
Inside The Hub will be a new Amtrak station, replacing the one on the Third Street corridor when that section of track through Springfield is vacated.
Most Amtrak passengers will use the west-side tracks next to the station. One or two Amtrak trains each day will use adjacent tracks immediately east. The east-side tracks will be accessed through the passenger bridge, which connects to the third level of The Hub, Van Meter said.
Passengers will be outdoors when they get on and off trains, the same way they do at the current Amtrak station.
In addition, Greyhound Lines may be relocating its bus terminal from Shaner's Tire & Towing on North Dirksen Parkway to a bay in the bus transfer station at The Hub. The SMTD board on June 27 authorized Managing Director Steve Schoeffel to negotiate a potential contract with Greyhound for use of the bay twice a day. Schoeffel said Greyhound is moving its bus stops from business locations to city transit centers across the country.
The Sangamon County Board plans to conduct a feasibility study on potential uses for the Third Street rail line to be vacated, McFadden said. Potential development costs for the county and Springfield could be as high as $14 million.
Suggested uses for the property include a walking and biking trail or a trolley line, but such a project would begin only after the projects along Ninth Street are completed, McFadden said.
The Grand Stair of County Square will have regular stairs on the left side and larger stairs arranged theater-style on which people can sit, relax and have lunch. Architectural renderings show large sections of glass on walls with light flooding the atrium.
County Square's second floor will feature a display that the Illinois State Museum is developing about Springfield's 1908 Race Riot, and a citizen committee is working on potential uses for a large display area on the third floor, Van Meter said.
A "large portion" of the energy costs associated with The Hub will be offset by solar panels to be installed on the roof, he said.
Completion of the SMTD transfer station will include a building with an indoor waiting area where patrons can use the restroom and buy snacks and bus passes. There also will be a break room for SMTD employees.
The Hub will be connected to the Sangamon/Menard Area Regional Transit system, and van transportation eventually will be offered between The Hub and Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport, Van Meter said.
"You can pretty much go anywhere in the city, and anywhere in the counties, and connect to the train station," he said.
The steel scaffolding going up at the transfer station will be part of the pedestrian bridge and a three-story-high exterior wall for the display of murals on the east and west sides by artists Jared Bader of Pennsylvania and Danielle Mastrion of New York, respectively.
Improvements to the seven-floor county complex, including planned renovation to the Sangamon County Board room on the second floor, are all designed "to make it as easy as possible for people to interact with the building," McFadden said.
"We're trying to move as much of the services that the public uses to the first floor ... so they don't have to come in and deal with the elevators," he said.
The addition of the parking deck will mean the county-owned parking lot for the public across Ninth Street and adjacent to the Bank of Springfield Center will be needed less, McFadden said. County officials are "more than willing" to discuss potential use of that lot for BOS Center expansion, he said.
Demolition work inside the county building is about to begin, and some county functions will have to move from the building temporarily. Space for those temporarily displaced workers is available at Sangamon South, another reason the former SJ-R building's availability worked out well for the county, McFadden said.
"It's a tremendous asset," he said.
Sangamon South, and specifically the first floor and lower level on the Capitol Avenue side of the former SJ-R building, will be the new home of the coroner's office. Coroner Jim Allmon's office currently is housed on the county building's third floor.
"Right now, logistically for us, things are pretty tough," he said.
Allmon predicted the new site will reduce by a half-hour or more the time it takes for staff members from the office to arrive at the scenes of death.
That's because the site, with the addition of enclosed, ground-level garages, will allow for consolidation of vehicles and offices now at the county complex, the city's two acute-care hospitals and the county's office of Emergency Management near the Sangamon County Fairgrounds. Coroner's office staff won't need to spend so much time retrieving and returning vehicles and other items when responding to calls.
"That means less time for law enforcement waiting for the coroner to arrive, and less time that families are waiting for the coroner to arrive," Allmon said.
The move will give the office its own morgue for storage and autopsies on the remains of people who die in crimes, accidents, suspicious circumstances and other situations in which state law requires involvement by the coroner.
"Every county our size – Champaign, Peoria, Madison, McLean – they all have had their own morgues for years," Allmon said. "This is really a blessing for us."
For decades, autopsies have taken place at Springfield Memorial Hospital's morgue, and refrigeration and freezer space for bodies has been available there and at HSHS St. John's Hospital.
Allmon said he's grateful for the hospitality shown by the hospitals over the years, adding that Memorial is donating $200,000 worth of equipment from its morgue for the new facility.
"Memorial has just been amazing to us in the decades we've been there, and they've really rolled out the red carpet for us there," he said.
The new site will give the coroner's office a permanent home, complete with a ground-level public entrance and office areas, and an autopsy suite in the lower level only a few steps away from where the SJ-R's press used to churn out newspapers every evening.
The sheriff's office will be able to move its evidence storage to the north side of the lower level of Sangamon South from a smaller area at the county complex. Tactical vehicles will be stored in new covered areas at ground level outside the building.
"This is just more of a place to call home for the tactical team," Sheriff Jack Campbell said.
He said he eventually would like to move all administrative and investigative functions of the sheriff's office to Sangamon South's lower level and first floor, including a records area for use by Springfield and county police, but all of those plans would need County Board approval.
"I'm ecstatic with this building," Campbell said.
Whether more than the sheriff's tactical vehicles and evidence storage move to Sangamon South in the short term will depend on the impact of Illinois' elimination of cash bail on space in the county jail, McFadden said.
The jail is in the county building, and it's uncertain whether the end of cash bail on Jan. 1 – courtesy of the Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today Act, known as the SAFE-T Act – will lead to fewer or more space occupied in the jail.
The net effect of defendants either being released without bail or held without bail until trial will determine whether non-jail space used by the sheriff's office will need to be converted to detention areas, McFadden said.
Plans that have funding account for only one-third of the space in Sangamon South. County officials have discussed renting to nonprofits and other governmental units needing low-cost office space. But the county won't rent to for-profit entities and take revenue away from downtown landlords, McFadden said.
The general contractor for the transfer station, county complex and Sangamon South is R.D. Lawrence. A contractor hasn't been selected yet for the Amtrak station and parking deck.
JH Petty Architects is handling design work for Sangamon South, while Farnsworth Group is designing the county building improvements and Muller2 is designing the transportation hub.
Reaction from the public to plans for The Hub and Sangamon South so far has been positive, Van Meter said.
County Board Vice Chairwoman Lori Williams, a Republican from Spaulding, said board members have been happy with the pace of the work and benefits to be gained.
"Improving our transportation hub and getting people better access to the transportation system – whether that be rail or bus or car – will be very helpful for us, both for tourism, but just for the way we operate as a county," she said.
"And getting some of the upgraded facilities for the coroner, for the sheriff's office and for a lot of our necessary functions, updating that for the future, is a good thing.
"It's important that we realize that this is really a state-federal-local issue, and the project is being funded by all of the governments coming together. We all have a common vision of what this should look like for the future. Both Republicans and Democrats – state and federal – we're all working together."
Dean Olsen is a senior staff writer with Illinois Times. He can be reached at 217-679-7810, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/DeanOlsenIT.