When the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library was in the design stage, a visiting team from the American Institute of Architects completed a rapid-paced downtown urban design profile called a Regional/Urban Design Assessment Team, or R/UDAT. The R/UDAT program was sought out by the city to create a framework for downtown to coincide with the museum opening. One of the most critical observations of the team was the great amount of surface parking lots, what is now commonly recognized as the "suburbanization of downtown."
The recent action by the city council to allow the demolition of two historic properties in downtown for a surface parking lot is part of the continuing trend of a downtown in decline. Other versions of this story are the YWCA block, the YMCA and the parking deck and adjacent structures at Fourth and Adams streets. There were at least two major and uninspired failures in the proposal to demolish four blocks of downtown for a new UIS campus or proposed demolition of the north block of the Old State Capitol for a "vista" to the new ALPLM. The last two proposals were recognized as examples of "planning by surprise," where an "artist rendering" of a cleared site shows up without any public input or effort to recognize private property rights. The current master plan by the state of Illinois to demolish the Stratton Building to create a major open setting for the Capitol building is another misguided plan of suburbanization of the city.
An open and empty patch of grass is just as deadly to urbanism as a parking lot.
The inability of the political leadership of this city to recognize their own incompetence has many causes. Some of the planning weaknesses are not unique to Springfield, but here are a few thoughts on why this is proving to be such a vexing problem. First and foremost is the lack of a professional planning department to provide any checks and balances to the plethora of bad ideas that advance beyond a dining room of the Sangamo Club. The city's contract with the county is little more than that of a zoning administrator for a simple land use zoning tool with limited utility for the modern redevelopment. Springfield is the largest community in Illinois without a planning department.
The second major problem is the wholesale use of the TIF program for projects that don't increase the tax revenue. The recent funding of the new YMCA had at least one taxing body call for the end of the TIF program. Candidates for the school board should be making their voices heard on this topic.
Voters should also be reminded of the debacle over the YWCA block. A major regional development company was going to invest in a full-block, mixed-use redevelopment that would have put a large amount of market-rate housing in downtown. The mayor said it was too expensive, with virtually no public vetting of the TIF amount requested and the taxes to be generated.
Providing millions of TIF dollars for the nonprofit YMCA, which refused to sell their old building for redevelopment, was way too expensive, but this got funding. TIF support needs to be balanced with TIF tax revenues in a policy-based formula, not the case-by-case basis that favors some over others.
The community, thanks to the effort of Downtown Springfield Inc., is currently engaged in a master planning process for the downtown. Unfortunately, this effort will be just as unused as the R/UDAT plan without a proper implementation tool, which would be a true city planning department.
One other important item in the public toolkit is the International Property Maintenance Code, which the city has adopted. Unfortunately, adoption and enforcement are two very different procedures. How is it that buildings in the downtown fall into long-term disuse with leaking roofs that cause structures to collapse, as was the case with the former Chamber of Commerce building on the Old State Capitol Plaza? Or, in the case of the two Horace Mann properties, long-term water damage causing mold and "bad smells" that affect aldermanic decisions? No historic buildings should be allowed to fall into this level of disrepair.
The saddest part of all is the lack of a historic preservation ethic in a community that sells the history of Lincoln as its brand. I sometimes get the impression that the overwhelming importance of the Lincoln story made all other history irrelevant to the community at large. The historic preservation movement in Illinois may have started with the Lincoln home, but unfortunately in Springfield it also ended there. The city of Springfield had one of the first historic districts in the state, around the Lincoln home, but the city's management of the plan was so poor that the local political forces championed the federal government to take it over. The city's other major historic district is the downtown, which is losing its historic resources at a steady rate. Springfield may promote its heritage to the world and fool a few tourists, but we are only fooling ourselves.
Mike Jackson is a preservation architect in Springfield and served as the Chief Architect for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and later as the Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer. He is an active member of the Association for Preservation Technology and co-chairs the Codes & Standards Technical Committee. He is active in the Main Street America network as a co-creator of the Upstairs Downtown redevelopment training program.