SJR: Mayor Jim Langfelder: The transformation of downtown

Please see below a recent op-ed from Mayor Langfelder that appeared in the State Journal Register:

Exciting times are ahead for downtown Springfield. A new microbrewery, Buzz Bomb, recently opened, with another, Anvil & Forge, close behind. The Kidzeum will open this summer. The $15 million renovation of the third oldest active governor’s mansion will be completed, and the Illinois Realtors Bicentennial Plaza construction will be finished, establishing a walkable corridor from Lincoln’s home to the Executive Mansion.

Two other projects in the works — the renovation of the Booth-Ferguson Buildings on Monroe Street and the church conversion project on Fifth and Capitol that is creating housing and commercial space — are reliant on TIF funds. The Downtown TIF was set to expire in 2016. However, the city coordinated the leadership effort with fellow taxing bodies and the legislature to extend the TIF for a historic second time. The extension means a projected $30 million for development assistance over the next 12 years for downtown redevelopment projects instead of $0. The extension is a major accomplishment and is crucial in transforming downtown’s future, both aesthetically and economically.

The transformation of the Jackson Street Corridor brings new opportunity for downtown. The corridor is made possible through a public/private partnership with the Illinois Realtors and will be completed for the Aug. 26 Bicentennial Celebration. The next development piece to continue the transformation is the Y-block redevelopment. The key to success is a project that will attract locals and tourists alike, while complementing downtown’s current efforts. The main emphasis from the Y-block RFP consultant, Dan Senftner from Destination Rapid City, was that the space has to be planned so there is a continuous cycle of activity that draws locals and tourists. Rapid City is a proven model that development will follow the people.

The land around the former YWCA has been vacant since the 1970s. The city purchased the land and YWCA from the state in 2014. Coming into office in 2015, I understood the importance of this project. The city received three good and diverse project proposals for the Y-block development:

• Mixed-use university development by EMS Midwest

• Mixed-use housing development by John Shafer Associates

• A park/playground, which was redesigned by North Mansion — Y Block Development

All the proposals included substantial green space, and were thoroughly vetted with the assistance of a nonpartisan advisory group.

My personal favorite was the mixed-use university development. However, two years without a state budget prevented UIS and SIU from being able to make a firm commitment to that location. And the mixed-use housing development was not economically feasible. To the developers’ credit, the project was redesigned in phases, with the first phase providing approximately 100 apartment units. Yet a financial gap of over $5 million remained.

The interactive park/playground was redesigned by internationally renowned landscape design architect Peter Wirtz. The new concept includes multiple interactive fountains, a natural amphitheater setting and provides for winter ice activities. It will also have a café with the potential for a rooftop terrace which will generate sales tax dollars. The cost estimate to build the unique interactive space is $6 million to $8 million, and would be constructed with private funds. The developer will maintain the park for 10 years. No TIF funds were requested for the project.

Discussions ensued about blending projects, but no definitive consensus could be reached. However, there was a way to maximize resources and accomplish all three projects downtown: Since the interactive park project will be constructed with private dollars, TIF funds could be used for the other projects. With that in mind, it was agreed that a portion of the Y-block bordering Fourth and Capitol could be used for future development, if a suitable project was forthcoming.

Discussions continue with those who submitted the other project proposals, with goals of developing additional apartments and establishing a greater university presence downtown. The city ramp on Fourth and Washington needs to be replaced, preferably with housing, and there are other potential locations. The City Council just made the three-year commitment to fund Innovate Springfield, the downtown incubator. This will help enable a stronger partnership with UIS. In addition, I have been in discussions with SIU President Randy Dunn about a possible satellite school presence in downtown Springfield.

Thanks to all three developer submittals, Springfield has the opportunity to transform downtown, not only on one block but multiple blocks. The positive transformation for downtown will continue well beyond this Bicentennial year.

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