Doing development right

Aldermen call Bluffstone’s bluff

click to enlarge One of Bluffstone’s numerous apartment properties.
One of Bluffstone’s numerous apartment properties.
One of Bluffstone’s numerous apartment properties.

They could just put trailers on it, I suppose. An Iowa firm, Bluffstone LLC, hoped to build a five-story, 70-unit apartment complex on a downtown Springfield parking lot. Because the apartments would be marketed to older local college students, the town’s two public universities wanted it. Downtown interests wanted it. The Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce wanted it. The city council didn’t want it. Last week aldermen unanimously voted to reject the $700,000 in planned tax increment financing that the developer called critical. The vote didn’t kill the project, but it probably will change it, and it also removed a lever the city could have used to pry a better building out of the company.

Why? Local labor organizations complained because the firm wouldn’t pledge to use local labor. Aldermen complained because the firm had been (to quote one alderman) “disrespectful to the process,” the process being flattering aldermen’s sense of their own importance. The company’s failure to pander to constituents and to flatter power probably would have doomed any project, but this one might have been doomed on its merits, or lack of them. Questions were asked (or at least hinted at) about the firm’s reliability and competence, about the site’s ownership and buildability, about the sufficiency of the demand, about construction quality. Enough of those questions were left unanswered that the council decided that Bluffstone was not an outfit the city ought to be doing business with. As the head of the local chamber of commerce put it to a reporter, the city wants development to be done right.

But does the City of Springfield know how to do development right? The council as a body seems to believe that the way to encourage development is to make it easy for developers to build in Springfield. But you can’t regenerate a downtown by just opening it to developers and hoping for the best. Development needs to be shaped, nudged, occasionally bullied by conscientious regulators into forms that meet the larger needs of the city. Expecting projects to meet code isn’t enough; code-compliant buildings can be ugly and inconvenient and bad neighbors, because Springfield’s codes don’t address ugly and inconvenient and neighborly. In Springfield, for better or worse, we rely on aldermen to do that.

An insult to the sanctity of private property? Any privately owned building that stands on a public way is, perforce, in the public realm. At the commencement of the approval process, therefore, city officials should remind a developer, “Your buildings are our city.” Those buildings’ size, shape and materials create the urban rooms through which we all walk; the face they offer to the street determines whether walking is comfortable and safe or is alienating and risky, their effect on the environment determines in part the effect the city environment has on us. During the recent discussion about the Bluffstone project, aldermen asked about everything but how or whether this building would add to the city,

Happily, we live in an age in which we do not rely on aldermen to ask all the appropriate questions. I asked Google, and got better answers. Photographs of the firm’s showcase projects revealed a commitment not to Minimalist architecture but to minimum architecture. (O, for the days when “upscale housing block downtown” meant something like the Hickox Apartments or even Lincoln Square.) The building depicted in renderings presented to the council would have been of a higher standard – as good as any put up downtown in 25 years.

It will be said that even a mediocre building is better than a parking lot. I wonder. It isn’t better if the mediocre building supplants the better building that might have gone up in that space if the city had pressed the developer for it. If this firm returns to Springfield to build its apartments, the city must demand to know what it will look like. How it will sit on the street. What amenities it will add to the street in the form of trees and benches. What provisions it will make for bicycle and transit access. How it will collect and process rainwater and snowmelt on the site.

After the vote, Bluffstone hinted that they might make up the lost $700,000 in city money by squeezing the construction budget. That’s 10 grand per unit. Student housing is configured in ways that also would make these units appealing to large families of various sorts. Such families are the natural, perhaps the only, market for them if the building loses favor with the schools that certify local housing as good enough for students. Young people – bless me, I was one myself, until I reformed – are hard on buildings. Cheap doesn’t last when catering to that market, and slums are quicker to put up than they are to take down.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at

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