By Carey Smith
The heart of a vibrant downtown is its residents, who often work, live and play all within the same walkable community. The patterns of revitalization repeat in mid-sized cities across the nation. After decades of development on the edges of a community, which unerringly decimate downtowns and city cores, residents begin to remember the vital importance of a thriving downtown and cohesive inner city, and revitalization efforts begin.
Downtown Springfield, Inc. (DSI) has spearheaded these efforts for years, with ventures in arts and entertainment, as well as advocating for business owners and residents of downtown. DSI’s executive director, Lisa Clemmons Stott, reports DSI has received a grant to produce a playbook to aid downtown revitalization efforts, focused on assisting property owners who aim to renovate the upper stories of downtown buildings into residential units.
Upstairs Downtown, a redevelopment group created in 2005 by Mike Jackson and Dan Carmody, has been has been tapped to produce the playbook, which involves three case studies of properties, including a property with a long-standing upstairs vacancy. Jackson, a local preservation architect, says the playbook helps the “property owner think like a developer” and includes feasibility studies to look at the economics of renovation.
Clemmons Stott intends the playbook to show downtown property owners that “no matter what type of building you own, there is a financial benefit to convert the upper stories to apartments, with all the pieces and parts of the process.”
David Lee, a downtown advocate and investor, recently acquired the former Jade Emporium at Seventh and Adams streets with an eye to renovating the upstairs into housing units. Some of the challenges in converting such a building is that the windows have been bricked over, as well as the interior chopped up in “interesting” ways. These challenges can be overcome with a good architect, which Lee feels he has in John Shafer, but the monetary outlay is significant.
Aaron Acree, owner of Michael von Behren Builder, Inc., purchased the former Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce building on the south side of the Old State Capitol Plaza after the roof caved in last year. He’s been working on making it structurally sound, with an aim to pursue residential units on the second and third stories. Attesting to the difficulty of renovating such an old and dilapidated property, Acree says the appraisal value of his finished building may be half the cost of remodeling it. That’s where tax increment financing (TIF) comes in.
The Central Area TIF, which covers the downtown area, is currently in the red, with increased obligations due to the expiration of the Enos Park TIF, which was originally intended to split the cost of the $6 million incentive for the construction of the new YMCA. However, the city council recently passed an ordinance to repay more than $700,000 in TIF funds that was spent several years ago to repair a roof on the municipal building. Clemmons Stott hopes those funds can now be used to help seven property owners who have expressed an interest in remodeling the upper stories of their properties for residential units.
While these projects are not the type of massive redevelopment efforts typically sought by the city or county’s economic development offices, these small projects result in a “steady incremental success over time,” according to Dan Carmody. As founder and principal at Carmody Consulting, and co-founder of Downtown Upstairs, he has the goal of seeing “a lot more people living downtown, a lot more eyes on street, more vitality, more safety and a stronger group of advocates for downtown.”
States Jackson, “It’s one story at a time. You take that one building up there and you put it back into use, and then you tell the story of what happened.”
Lee explains that downtown is a hub of activities and highlights downtown’s walkability, unique architecture, interesting activities in arts and entertainment and festivals, with jobs and housing to complement its leisure activities. “Millennials want that. But I also think retired folks or empty nesters benefit from the mix,” he says.
The effort DSI and other community partners are putting into revitalizing downtown is a familiar story repeated in small cities across America. Reinvigorating the heart of our community is vital in making our whole city vibrant and strong, the best version of Springfield we can be.
Carey Smith currently lives, works and plays in the walkable community of Enos Park, a short stroll from downtown.