Mixed bag on MacArthur

Values drop in district, but hope lives

 Six years ago, Springfield did what many cities do when faced with a deteriorating thoroughfare.

Determined to turn around MacArthur Boulevard, the city commissioned a master plan, then appointed a committee to help make it happen. With trees and hidden parking and spacious sidewalks and stately brick buildings, the drawings were pretty. The dream was backed by the formation of a tax-increment financing district aimed at encouraging developers to make the plan reality.

Things have not developed, at least not yet, as folks had hoped.

So far, Hy-Vee has been the only beneficiary of TIF dollars. The city agreed to give the grocery chain more than $3.5 million to convert a former K-Mart building into a supermarket, with Hy-Vee paying slightly more than $6 million. TIF districts don’t get funded if property values don’t increase, and property values decreased in the MacArthur TIF district by more than $300,000 between 2012, when the TIF district was formed, and 2016. According to the most recent report submitted last year to the state by the city, the TIF fund had accumulated just $16,331 over the years.

For every sign of life, there seems to be a setback. Starcrest Cleaners recently opened a store in a new building near Hy-Vee. Pie’s The Limit opened a year ago, also in a new building. A coffee shop is scheduled to open at the intersection of MacArthur and South Grand Avenue. But the NAPA auto parts store midway between Wabash and South Grand has moved from MacArthur to Wabash Avenue. McDonald’s has closed. Burlington Coat Factory is set to move from the Town and Country shopping center to a freshly remodeled strip mall on Wabash near White Oaks Mall. Ruler Foods has dropped plans to build a grocery store on site of the demolished Esquire Theater. “That is now, officially, dead,” says Ward 7 Ald. Joe McMenamin.

“It’s the same as the overall health of the city,” says Michael Higgins, president of the MacArthur Boulevard Association.

Still, MacArthur is a good place for business, according to Chris Hanken, owner of Pie’s The Limit. “That store sells more than our Freedom Drive location,” he says. “That’s not what our original thought was.” Hanken credits to-go orders placed by folks in surrounding neighborhoods for sales volumes that are between 8 and 11 percent higher than on the west side of town.

McMenamin is bullish on MacArthur. “I think what you see is buildings reaching the end of their useful lives,” the alderman says. “The long-term prospects are very positive.”

McMenamin sees opportunity in the Esquire property, a vacant building that was once home to Federated Funeral Directors of America and the Town and Country shopping center, which has vacant space. The funeral directors building likely will have to be demolished, he said, and he’d like to see more residential development along the corridor. “I think we just have to be patient,” he said.

Corky Joyner, who co-owns the Town and Country shopping center along with city corporation counsel Jim Zerkle, acknowledges challenges. The MacArthur corridor is a B location compared with areas around Veterans Parkway and Wabash Avenue, Joyner said, which include the most desired retail space in the city. Alternative uses are needed for properties such as Town and Country, which include large parking lots and strip retail space far from the street. It’s a national issue, he said, but Springfield is fighting stagnant demographics. “The retail market is definitely changing faster than some people thought,” Joyner said. “We’re living in a city that’s shrunk in a state that’s shrunk.”

While large properties such as Town and Country that consume entire blocks need to seek out tenants other than stores, smaller strip malls to house restaurants and stores remain viable on MacArthur, Joyner said. “The population density is massive,” he said. “It’s probably the best demographics in the city, not only the number of people, but the quality of people.”

One question is improvements to the street, which is now under state control. Plans for bike lanes, which have prompted concerns from business owners who fear they’d lose property if the street is widened, should be dropped, McMenamin said. Instead, improvements should be limited to new lighting, curbs and sidewalks, he said. Bicycle routes should be established on side streets such as State Street or Glenwood Avenue. However, Ward 6 Ald. Kristen DiCenso, whose ward includes those streets, said that her constituents don’t favor bicycle routes through their neighborhoods. “They want less traffic, of all kinds, not more,” DiCenso said. “They want bike lanes on the busier streets.”

McMenamin said that he’d like to see the state hand the street over to the city along with a check for $10 million so that the city could pay for improvements. Mayor Jim Langfelder, however, said that the state should pay for improvements to the city’s satisfaction, then turn MacArthur over to the city. Otherwise, he said, the city could be on the hook for cost overruns.

DiCenso said she believes that the MacArthur corridor is struggling to find its identity. “We come up with a lot of plans in Springfield, but we don’t’ seem to follow through on a lot of them,” she said. “MacArthur can’t get much worse – we literally can’t walk down MacArthur. I think all we have is optimism, going forward. There isn’t room for negativity.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at rushton@illinoistimes.com.

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