My Views on Downtown Revitalization

I posted my platform in bullet format because that makes it easy for people to figure out what I’d do if I am elected without reading a series of long essays. I’m writing a series of blog posts covering each issue category for those who want more detailed information. This is the first, addressing downtown revitalization.

Downtown Revitalization Should Be a Priority

Downtown revitalization is a top priority for me. In fact, recent efforts to develop a master plan for the downtown provided the final push I needed to run for city council. The master plan is intended to last for fifteen years, but it will involve a lot of new construction. The new buildings will define the public space, and will be the key factors that determine what is possible in the downtown.

The new buildings will also have a much longer life than the downtown master plan. If the new buildings last only as long as the former 710 Bookstore building, they will be around for 50 years. If they last as long as the buildings on the town square, we will be living with them for 100 years or more. It is essential that we get this right.

There are several reasons I think we should prioritize downtown revitalization, but the most important is the role a downtown plays in establishing a community’s identity.  Many cities and towns have auto-oriented shopping areas like those on the east side of Carbondale, and they mostly look similar to one another. A downtown is where a community sets itself apart; it is where the unique aspects of a community are on display. The condition of a city’s downtown sends a message about that city, and the message our downtown has been sending isn’t good.

A high quality downtown could help SIU recruit students and faculty, and it could help SIH recruit doctors and other medical personnel. Unfortunately, our downtown is not the asset it should be. In 2012, the Carbondale Business Development Corporation hired One Main Development, which has built successful mixed-use developments in Champaign-Urbana, to identify opportunities and obstacles to downtown revitalization in Carbondale. One Main’s report, which is available on the city’s website in pdf format, acknowledged the role downtown can play in recruitment:

Major employers, including the SIH medical system, have expressed challenges to recruitment efforts. This issue will be ongoing, due to the distance of the community from a major urban center with its attractions; however, it can be mitigated with attractive housing and retail options.

— Downtown Revitalization Background Review, prepared by One Main Development, LLC.

The Downtown Advisory Committee has begun the process of developing a master plan for the downtown. A good master plan is a necessary condition for downtown revitalization. To succeed, we will also need a city council willing to implement the plan. Much of our downtown is dilapidated, and it is time to start improving it.

My Views on Downtown Revitalization

In my platform, I listed four specific proposals for downtown revitalization. I’ll provide more detail on my proposals below.

Use TIF Funds to Invest in Infrastructure and Streetscape Improvements

A downtown needs more than good buildings—it needs quality infrastructure, attractive and effective lighting, street furniture, and public art, among other things. There is an obvious problem: all those things cost money, and the city only has so much money available. The downtown Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district helps by creating a source of revenue the city can use to make these necessary investments.

The city should use TIF revenue to make the kinds of improvements to the public space that will make downtown more appealing to students, full-time residents, and visitors. There are several improvements worth considering. We might want to bury the power lines, or at least relocate them behind buildings. We might want to rebuild our sidewalks, or install decorative lampposts. TIF revenue allows us to make these investments.

Seek Grant Funds to Build a Multi-modal Transportation Facility

The current Amtrak station serves about 130,000 passengers per year, and it is not adequate. A new multi-modal transportation facility, similar to Illinois Terminal In Champaign-Urbana, would remedy this problem by providing a larger and more modern facility for Amtrak passengers, but it can do more. A multi-modal facility can serve the RIDES Mass Transit System, the Jackson County Mass Transit System, the Saluki Express system, and Greyhound and other inter-city bus operators.

Solve Parking Problems, Possibly Through Construction of a Parking Garage

There is currently plenty of parking in the downtown area. In fact, one of the problems with the downtown is that there are too many parking lots and too few buildings. A successful downtown revitalization program will replace many surface parking lots with new buildings, preferably mixed use buildings with commercial uses on the ground floors and apartments on upper floors.

The risk is that we will trade our current problem—too much parking and too few buildings—for a new problem: too little parking. One solution is to build a parking garage in the downtown, preferably with commercial uses on the ground floor. The problem with this solution is that it is very expensive to build a parking garage. If downtown redevelopment continues, Carbondale will need to find a way to finance a parking garage.

There are several possible options:

  • TIF Funds—Revenue generated by the downtown TIF district can be used to build a parking garage. The TIF district is unlikely to generate enough revenue to completely fund a garage, but it can defray some of the costs.
  • Build-Operate-Transfer—A build-operate-transfer agreement involves contracting with a private company to build a parking garage. The company then operates the garage until it recovers its costs. Once the company recovers its costs, it transfers ownership of the garage to the city.
  • Payment in Lieu of Parking—Carbondale’s zoning code requires developers to provide parking in zoning districts outside the downtown. You have probably noticed that much of that parking goes unused most of the time. A payment in lieu of parking program would allow developers to pay a fee to the city in order to reduce the amount of parking they are required to build. The payment per space is usually set below the cost of providing a parking space, which encourages developers to pay the fee instead of providing an overabundance of parking. The city could use the revenue generated from the program to help fund a parking garage in the downtown.

Enact Necessary Zoning Changes to Set an Expectation of Quality for New Development

The Downtown Advisory Committee called for a “review of, and public guide to, regulations and codes.” I think the city should undertake that review, and we should be willing to make changes to our code. Given the longevity of buildings and their importance in defining the public space in the downtown area, I believe we should consider changing the code to require new buildings to meet certain standards beyond those required by the building code. A form-based code is one way to accomplish this.

Form-based codes set an expectation of quality by regulating the form of buildings, including size, orientation and placement on the lot, and certain design elements. If we want to use a form-based code for the downtown, it is not necessary to replace our entire zoning code. We could create a form-based overlay district that applies only to the downtown. Many cities, including Normal and Champaign use form-based standards in their downtowns. In fact, Carbondale added form-based regulations to our zoning code during the 2013 update. If we want quality development in the downtown, we should strengthen the form-based provisions of our code.

Why I Believe Things Will Be Different This Time

Downtown revitalization is a perennial campaign issue, which is evidence that Carbondale’s residents want improvement in the downtown. The longevity of this issue might convince us of its importance, but it might also make us a little cynical. We might note that the city has made plans to revitalize the downtown in the past, and we might be tempted to ask why things will be different this time.

There are several reasons I think the present effort to revitalize downtown will be more successful than past efforts. I will detail some of those below.

First, downtown revitalization is happening in cities and towns across the country because there has been a shift in preference toward the type of development found in downtowns. With past efforts, we were swimming against the broader current, which still favored auto-oriented developments on the edge of town. This time, Carbondale is joining a nationwide trend toward downtown revitalization.

Second, the process for developing the upcoming master plan has involved a broad spectrum of people. The Downtown Advisory Committee involved a mix of people who represent important constituencies in Carbondale, and the public meetings drew large numbers of citizens who brought their enthusiasm and their ideas. This response from the public demonstrates the commitment and engagement of our residents, and makes me hopeful that this time will be different.

Third, the TIF district puts real money on the table. This money provides an incentive for developers to invest, and it provides a source of revenue that will allow the city to make improvements to the infrastructure and streetscape. The combination of new development and streetscape improvements can change the face of the downtown, and make it a place people want to be.

Fourth, the current plans for downtown contain a major emphasis on mixed use—particularly new residential development. A mix of uses keeps an area lively during more of the day. Residential development is particularly important because residents are able to walk to downtown businesses, and their presence on the sidewalks creates activity that draws others to the downtown. This is a departure from the 1990 Downtown Development Plan, which did not emphasize residential development.

Fifth, there is already new development occurring in the downtown. The Evolve project has commercial space on the ground floor, with four floors of apartments above. A new four-story building will soon occupy the former American Tap lot, again with commercial uses on the ground floor and residential uses on the upper floors. These developments demonstrate the potential to improve the downtown, and they distinguish the current revitalization effort from previous attempts.

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