By Dave Kelm
Earlier this year, Norm Sims, executive director of the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission announced he would be retiring. Sims has headed the commission for nearly nine years and been involved with city and state government for a number of years prior to his county service. Much like other superstars, though, Sims was convinced by Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder and Sangamon County board chairman Andy Van Meter to stay on for one last major planning project – the next City of Springfield 20 year plan.
The city has had its fits and starts with planning over the years. Sims points to the original city plan – a 1925 Springfield City Plan known as The West Plan – as the start of Springfield’s attempt to divine and determine land use in the Capitol City. The West Plan, according to the Sangamon County Historical Society, was inspired by the “city beautiful” movement of urban planning in the early 1920s. Myron West, a planner with a Chicago firm, was hired to develop a plan for the improvement and extension of Springfield.
The West Plan was adopted in 1924 and published in 1925 in an effort to remake Springfield as a city worthy of Abraham Lincoln. Sims noted that the 1925 plan was undertaken at a time when Springfield was beginning to adopt the legacy of Lincoln. “Much of the planning since that time has focused on inclusion of Lincoln and then planning for baby boomers,” Sims said. The West Plan would be recognized by many today who have been involved with the RUDAT and SDAT planning efforts. West proposed a seven-square-block “national patriotic center” around the Lincoln Home and formal boulevards including a widened, landscaped Capitol Avenue. The plan also called for improved infrastructure including parks, clean water and a “rationalized and expanded streetcar network.”
The current land use plan has been tweaked and amended but not fully overhauled in a number of years. The plan that will cap Sims’ career with the Commission will cover 2017 through 2037. Sims notes that the planning process this time around takes a different approach because of how much technology has also expanded. “In 2000, the office didn’t have a great GIS capability for planning,” Sims said. “This time around, we are working with the University of Illinois on a land use platform that will allow us to model the next 20 years much more efficiently.”
Beyond straight land use, Sims discussed the notion that the commission is beginning to move from “wholesale” planning to “retail” planning. “Look, this office traditionally has been asked to do a plan by a municipality, and we pump out a plan for that community,” Sims said. “Now we are engaging with individuals and neighborhoods and attempting to plan for what citizens and organizations would like to see.” Sims pointed to the “You Plan It” app launched in conjunction with the next plan for Springfield. “The app is giving us data about what people want to see in the city and in their neighborhood. It is also giving us data about attitudes of people who will be affected by the next plan.”
“What I have been telling my staff and others about this next plan for Springfield is that we have all been planning with boomers in mind for the past 40-odd years,” Sims said. “The next plan has to be focused on the millennial generation.” Sims points to recent research his office has conducted in finding that millennials are looking for interconnectivity. More than just moving from point A to point B, they also want ease of movement between neighborhoods. “The next plan needs to allow for greater flexibility within areas of Springfield,” Sims continued. “There will be areas the plan identifies as desirous of growth and of a particular type of growth. But there will also be areas that don’t need growth, at all.”
Over the next 20 years, Springfield is likely to see limited population growth. Sims estimates Springfield might see a 4-5 percent increase overall. “Remember, 40 percent of an economy is based on population growth,” Sims noted. In the Commission’s research, though, it has found that people leaving Sangamon County – on average – make 20 percent more than those who are moving to Sangamon County. Limited growth with reduced incomes will certainly strain local budgets, but Sangamon County governments will also be hit with rolling declines in property taxes collected. Large numbers of local citizens are aging and will take advantage of the tax freeze available for those age 65 and over. “A key question for planners and politicians is, how we implement our plans with no or limited tax dollars,” Sims said.
The next 20 year plan for the City of Springfield will undergo a number of hearings after the first of the year. The Commission itself will present its findings; there will be public hearings before the Planning and Zoning Commission for the city and, finally, another open hearing before the city council votes in late spring. Sims came to Springfield in 1991 to work for the State of Illinois, worked for Mayors Hasara and Davlin and will now wrap up his planning career with completion of a plan for the next 20 years. “The secret about planning is that cities need to use their plans to recruit new people and not just new businesses,” said Sims.