The Carbondale Observer

News and commentary about Carbondale, Illinois and SIUC

Home Rentals, Density, and Neighborhood Revitalization

with 14 comments

Tuesday night the Carbondale city council rejected an application from Home Rentals for a special use permit that would have allowed the construction of a four unit apartment complex adjacent to the library on Monroe Street. I think the council made the correct decision, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts. But I wanted to write this post in response to some comments made during the council’s discussion. I originally wanted to include a response to a statement from the library board of directors, but I’ve run out of space, so that will have to be covered in a future post.

I’ll start by restating the reason for my objection to the special use permit for Home Rentals. I had only one reason to oppose the special use permit: Home Rentals’ dismal maintenance record on its existing properties. Their rental houses are in poor shape and their apartment buildings are among the ugliest structures in Carbondale. In recent years, Home Rentals has covered many of their properties in unappealing clay-colored vinyl siding, which has only made their appearance worse.

If Home Rentals built attractive apartment buildings and properly maintained their rental houses, I would have supported the special use permit. I favor increased residential development and increased density in and around the downtown. It was only because of Home Rentals’ poor reputation that I opposed the development. Since this position goes against conventional wisdom in Carbondale, I’ll explain at length.

In this post, I’m going to confine myself to a few comments about the discussion at Tuesday’s council meeting. During the discussion, council member Don Monty raised a concern about density. I couldn’t write fast enough to get an exact quote, but his concern was something to the effect that he sees landlords trying to build as densely as they can – trying to get as many people as possible living on each parcel – and that this is potentially problematic.

Council member Chris Wissmann, in his best comment of the evening, replied that density is the opposite of sprawl, and that our citizens have expressed their opposition to sprawl development. To his credit, Monty recognized the merit in Wissmann’s comments.

Monty also mentioned an example of a high rise development he recently visited in Chicago in which density was achieved by building vertically and moving parking underground. This allowed the developers to devote a substantial portion of the parcel to green space. Monty recognized that this type of development probably isn’t practical in Carbondale.

My comments on this exchange relate to density and green space. I’ll start with density. In March of 2009, I attended a meeting at the Carbondale Middle School. The purpose of the meeting was to take ideas from the public about what ought to be included in the new comprehensive plan. I heard comments from several people who wanted a more “walkable” community. It’s worth thinking about what we mean when we say we want “walkability.”

Strictly speaking, every community is walkable. It’s possible to walk along a busy freeway. It isn’t legal, but it’s physically possible. It’s possible to walk along a “Miracle Mile” style commercial strip. It isn’t fun, but you could do it. I occasionally see people walking down Route 13 between the mall and the strip malls on the north side of 13. They’re taking their lives in their hands, but they are able to walk there. You don’t even need a community to walk – it’s possible to walk through woods and cow pastures.

But that isn’t what we mean when we say we want a walkable community. We mean that we want the ability to walk to a nearby coffee shop or tavern. We want to be able to walk to a restaurant or grocery store. We want to walk to a movie theater or concert venue. We want to be able to walk to work or to a nearby park. And we don’t want to walk alongside a freeway with cars screaming past at 70 miles per hour. We want to walk on a nice, wide sidewalk on a regular street with cars moving at a slower pace.

This is achievable, but it requires density, among other things (short blocks, relatively narrow streets, on-street parking, etc.). If you want to live in a 2,500 square foot house sitting on a two acre lot and also live in a walkable neighborhood, you’re out of luck. The two are in conflict, and there is no way to resolve that conflict. We need density if we’re going to have the customer base necessary to support the coffee shops, taverns, restaurants, grocery stores, movie theaters, and concert venues. There is no way around it. We have to choose whether we want walkable neighborhoods or low density neighborhoods. We can’t have both at once.

Of course, we can have both walkable neighborhoods and low density neighborhoods – we just can have them in the same neighborhood. It seems to me that the logical place for walkability and higher density is the center of town. Carbondale isn’t a large enough community to support walkability and high density in every neighborhood. Ideally, some parts of town would be walkable and feature the high density necessary to support walkability. Other neighborhoods are low density and it’s impractical to walk to your destination.

In Carbondale, low density is no problem. If you want to live in a low density neighborhood, you buy a split level on Sunset or Parrish. And it’s still sort of walkable. You can go on an evening stroll around the neighborhood and back home, you just can’t walk to a restaurant, coffee shop, or tavern. In Carbondale, walkability is the problem, as the comments at the planning meeting in March 2009 showed. The solution is greater residential density in and around downtown.

I could (and probably should) write more about density, but I still need to address green space. I have to move on, but I’ll return to this subject in a future post. For now, I’ll turn to green space. Again, it’s worthwhile to consider what we mean when we talk about “green space” or its cousin “open space.”

At the March 2009 meeting at the Middle School, I heard a number of comments advocating more green space, often from the same people who advocate walkability. So what do we mean when we say “green space?” Do we mean the grassy strip between eastbound and westbound Route 13 near the mall? Probably not. Are we talking about the expansive lawn surrounding the First Southern bank building on Marion St.? Again, probably not. Are we talking about my front yard? Depending on the context, maybe we are.

I think this conversation would benefit from a fairly long quote. This is from James Howard Kunstler’s The City in Mind. Kunstler is a novelist, but he’s probably best known as an amateur urbanist and social critic. His book The Geography of Nowhere is most likely his most famous work. It decries what some have called the “malling of America.”

The quote deserves a little context. Kunstler has been invited to give a talk in Missoula, Montana. He arrived early and attended a city council meeting where a battle was taking place between pro-growth and anti-growth activists. From The City in Mind:

…the Anti-Growthers, one by one got up and made impassioned speeches about “open space.” The problem with Missoula, they contended, was that it did not “have” enough “open space.”

This was very funny because Missoula happened to be located in a part of the country where you could walk five minutes out of town in any direction and find yourself facing the greatest contiguous wilderness in the lower forty-eight states, including man-eating bears, cougars, and other bioregional incunabula. The problem as I saw it from a civic design point of view was that Missoula had too much “open space” right there in the center of town. As in many towns of the American West, Missoula’s streets were uniformly too wide and its buildings too low and too spread out with too many parking lots between them. Civic space in Missoula was poorly defined, the building facades were of a uniformly dreary, artless quality, on the whole poorly maintained, too, and there was no systematic planting of street trees. […] The trouble with Missoula was not a lack of open space. The problem was that everything it contained was poorly made, not worth caring about, and unworthy of the condition of collective self-respect called civilization. But there was nothing special about it by American standards. […]

Wherever I go in the United States these dates, it’s the same story. We want Open Space, that’s all. We ask for an abstraction, and an abstraction is delivered – in the form of bark-mulch berms planted with juniper shrubs and other such landscape “buffers” between the Kmart and the apartment “complex.” We get these little cartoons of the countryside deployed everywhere, and we are no better off for them. We want these “nature” Band-Aids because the wound to our urbanism cannot heal. We cannot even imagine it will heal: The scores of thousands of discount malls, and the subdivisions of vinyl doublewide manufactured “homes,” and the tragic collector boulevards lined with “power centers,” and the high schools with ample parking for the whole senior class, and all the rest of the cheap, ugly, provisional stuff that we’ve filled our world up with is too much with us. We gave up on the human habitat in America generations ago. Now we just grimly put up with what we’re stuck with until the next annual trip to admire the scenery in a sacred “wilderness,” such as Yosemite. Heaven, for Americans, is a landscape by Capability Brown with sand traps, numbered holes, and convenient free parking.

It’s not hard to believe that we are hopeless.

[Italics Kunstlers, bold mine.]

Substitute “Missoula” with “Carbondale,” and “open space” with “green space” and you have a decent description of our problem. This quote bears a caveat. I think Kunstler is too relentlessly negative. His standards are too high. But his basic point is accurate. Our problem is that the human habitat is cheap and ugly. It wasn’t always this way, but it’s this way now. “Green space” won’t solve the problem of the human habitat.

I’ll tell you what I mean when I talk about green space. I’m talking about the public space. That term, “public space” probably deserves some definition, but I don’t want to dwell on it. What I mean when I talk about “public space” is the part of the community open to the public. I’m not talking about First Southern bank’s yard. I’m not talking about my back yard. I’m talking about the public rights of way – the streets, sidewalks, and the grassy strip between the two. I’m also talking about our front yards – the building facades and the yards in front of them. And I’m talking about our public parks.

I want to return to the First Southern yard because I think it’s instructive. Our zoning laws call for “green space” in commercial developments (the First Southern bank is located in a BPL district, which requires a minimum front yard depth of 40 feet, a minimum side yard of 20 feet, etc.). So, in response to public demand, we get the First Southern yard.

I have to ask: of what benefit to the community is the First Southern yard? Suppose I want to play Frisbee with a friend. Can I go play in the First Southern yard? Probably not – it’s private property and it doesn’t make sense for a bank to allow strangers to play Frisbee on its yard. What if I want to walk my dog, or sit on a bench and read a book? Is the First Southern yard a good place to do that? Again, I doubt it.

I think Carbondale would have been better served if the First Southern bank had been built on a smaller lot and the building and its parking covered most or all of the lot. Since the development was part of a TIF district, the city potentially could have used TIF funds to purchase a lot in the area and developed it into a public park where I could play Frisbee, walk a dog, or read on a bench. In other words, we generally benefit from public green space, not private green space.

I think we have to be careful when we demand “green space.” I’m all for public parks. I think that wherever possible we ought to have a grassy strip planted with trees between the street and the sidewalk. But I’m skeptical when I hear calls for “green space” on private developments. It seems to me that these requirements are at odds with good urban design. That blank space between the street and First Southern bank, and the blank space between First Southern and its neighbors is wasted space. Sure, it’s green, if we take green to mean nothing more than a grassy yard. But it isn’t accessible to the public, and it is an obstacle to the walkability that we all claim to support.

Better that we allow private developments to be as dense and compact as possible and focus our desire for green space on public spaces that will be used by the public. How would we do this? I’m sure there are many possibilities, but one I’d suggest is a green space fee. Here’s how it would work. In return for a fee, you can skip the “green space” requirements in our zoning code. The fee goes into a special fund used to buy and develop public green space – contiguous, publicly accessible space that adds to our community rather than subtracting from it. This would aid the goal of creating a walkable community and would avoid the kind of wasted space we see in the First Southern yard.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I initially planned to include a response to a statement from the library’s board of directors. Unfortunately, I’m approaching 2,400 words here, which is LONG for a blog post. I’ll have to respond to the library board’s statement in a future post, most likely appearing tomorrow (maybe Monday – blog traffic seems to decrease on Fridays and I’m reluctant to write a long post on a subject I’m passionate about and then publish it on a day when fewer people will read it).

Comments are welcome.

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Written by The Carbondale Observer

August 18, 2011 at 7:45 am

14 Responses

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  1. Thanks for a really thoughtful discussion about walkability and the disconnect between what we say we think we want and how we don’t actually think about what we mean when we say it (if that makes any sense). And thanks for bringing Kunstler into the discussion. I always think of him as the worst case scenario, which is important to consider because when you approach it incrementally, you often don’t notice until it’s too late.

    I wanted to point out (nitpick, maybe) that living at Parish and Sunset (I live at Rod and Sunset) does not preclude walking to all the amenities you need. There are the Co-op, International Grocery, La Tienda and Fresh Foods for stocking your kitchen and the Co-op also provides the coffee shop. For taverns and restaurants there is the Mississippi Flyway and a Mexican restaurant, and there is even a post office. Murdale may be an ugly strip mall, but walking to it is not an ugly process (unike, say, proceeding to Key West across route 13). I can even sent my kid to the store by bike to pick up milk and not worry about his safety. But you are right that you can move just a little farther (Chautauqua and Country Club) and not be able to walk anywhere. And you are right that us west siders cannot walk to downtown easily.

    Given the (delightfully just-right) size of Carbondale, however, I see a need to include bikeability into our thinking as well. There’s no reason that it should be so difficult to bike to downtown from my house (2 miles directly) that I would hesitate (and most would refuse to consider) sending the kids on their own to the library or the Friday Fair by bike. Your comments on density certainly apply to bikeability as well, and I really like your idea of the connected green space/green fee in lieu of landscaping.

    Audrey Wagner

    August 18, 2011 at 8:34 am

  2. Thanks for a thoughtful piece. I’m tempted to say that it’s unfortunate that such a basic distinction as “public vs. private” green space probably didn’t enter into the long discussion that gave us the current version of the Comprehensive Plan, and add that if we want Monroe Street to be re-developed in ways that add to the social good (rather than primarily serving the fiscal needs of the developer) we should start getting used to the notion that it is up to us to cooperate with the developer financially as well as by throwing a bunch of poorly-imagined roadblocks up in front of him. However, this could lead to a much longer conversation. For now, I’ll just say that I agree with your thinking that the Home Rentals SUP should be denied, and I did contact all council members and say so.

    John Holt

    August 18, 2011 at 8:58 am

  3. Thank you for a very thoughtful post. A note on parks in this central part of the city: The Comprehensive Plan (http://ci.carbondale.il.us/index.php?q=node/357, Chapter 2) does advocate more parks. Map 2.2 shows the general lack of neighborhood parks in the city, including the entire older city core. To get to the closest park (Attucks Park), people in this neighborhood must cross four major streets (US 51 & IL 13) and the railroad tracks. The Plan (p. 2.11) specifically suggests a park in the Downtown Area. The half percent Saluki Way was supposed to provide funds for public green space development (parks, bike and walkways, etc.), but that money has evaporated due to the recession.

    Jane Adams

    August 18, 2011 at 12:18 pm

  4. What a fantastic post, thank you. To build on your and Kunstler’s ideas, I think the ugliness of many parts of Carbondale, and particularly most of the city’s major entrances is a big problem. I love Murdale to death, and if you include Rural King, we can get most of what we need, and on bikes there, even though I live way out on Wood Road. But what an ugly section of highway that is; so ugly you might guess it was done on purpose. Colleagues of mine have a very hard time recruiting high quality grad students for surperb programs at SIUC. I’ll never forget my first trip here, and driving along the Murdale strip thinking, “what a dump.” Aside from drawing high quality students and residents, you’re very right; taking care of and improving what we have is so important.

    Steve Gough

    August 18, 2011 at 12:44 pm

  5. You wrote: “I have to ask: of what benefit to the community is the First Southern yard?” And later you say: “That blank space between the street and First Southern bank, and the blank space between First Southern and its neighbors is wasted space. Sure, it’s green, if we take green to mean nothing more than a grassy yard. But it isn’t accessible to the public, and it is an obstacle to the walkability that we all claim to support.”

    Hmmmm. I enjoyed reading your thoughtful post. However, I was a taken aback by your theory of “green space” – that it is only useful as a “public space”. Otherwise its wasted. I disagree. The built environment is obviously a profound aesthetic dimension of the town. Landscaping, decoration and other amenities enhance the experience of a neighborhood or a commercial district. The green areas around First Southern are a relief after the tattered monotony of the commercial strip on 13.

    While Carbondale suffers from a lack of density, it suffers even more by the drab and disheveled look of the street and many of the neighborhoods. The “Strip” which arguably obeys your rules as to “green space” = “public space”, is an eyesore. It is neither a pleasure to walk nor a good business environment.

    Finally, Kunstler was very specific about Missoula, Montana: “As in many towns of the American West, Missoula’s streets were uniformly too wide and its buildings too low and too spread out with too many parking lots between them. Civic space in Missoula was poorly defined, the building facades were of a uniformly dreary, artless quality, on the whole poorly maintained, too, and there was no systematic planting of street trees.”

    Carbondale has some of the defects that he cites, including “too many parking lots”. But that is a consequence of decay and not intention. Our placement of trees and landscaping is part of the mid-western sense of aesthetics. Unfortunately our town has neglected that heritage.

    I agree with the poster above, its not just an aesthetic exercise we’re involved in, this stuff has real consequences – it is harder to recruit not just students but also professors and doctors and other professionals.

    Most important is our shared vision of this town. Its blog posts like this, and discussions like we are having that will get us to that place. Sooner, I hope, rather than later.

    D Gorton

    August 18, 2011 at 3:13 pm

  6. Thanks for the great comments! Rather than write five separate responses, I’m going to respond to everyone in this one comment.

    Audrey Wagner: I agree, bike-ability should be considered right alongside walkability. As to the example of Parrish and Sunset – you’re right. The example would have been better if I’d used Deer Lake Drive or Kent and Greg, which are a little farther west. It’s true that Murdale is an ugly strip mall, but it is within walking distance for residents of some of the west side neighborhoods.

    John Holt: I agree that our zoning regulations (poorly imagined roadblocks) make it difficult (and expensive) to build good, dense neighborhoods.It’s a lot easier to build a subdivision with a lot of cul-de-sacs and large houses on large lots than to build compact, traditional neighborhood developments. It seems to me that Carbondale is developed along the pattern of a suburb, which would be fine if we were a suburb. But we aren’t a suburb, we’re the biggest town south of the Metro East and we ought to pursue a more urban style of development, at least in the center of town. I’m not sure our current zoning laws permit that kind of development.

    Jane Adams: I should have been more clear – my complaint is about green space requirements in private developments, specifically in the center of town. I wholeheartedly agree that we need a downtown park. Here’s a dream of mine which is probably impractical (at least right now) due to the cost and the political constraints. I’d like to see the city purchase the land the old Tuscan Lodge used to sit on and build a parking garage with an attractive facade on that lot. That spot is as close to the businesses around the town square as the parking lots currently ON the town square. With the garage, we could get rid of those parking lots and turn the town square into a downtown park.

    A side benefit would be that a garage on that spot would open the strip of Jackson St. east of the town square and the part of Marion St. north of Jackson to traditional developments along the lines of the buildings on the town square. That kind of development in that location could conceivably lead to some redevelopment/gentrification in the northeast neighborhood, which is suffering right now.

    Considering the high cost of building parking structures, the current problems with public finances at all levels of government, and the opposition in Carbondale to publicly subsidized parking, I realize this will remain a dream – at least for the foreseeable future. Maybe someday…

    Steve Gough: I think you’re right, the ugliness of Carbondale drives away some potential students and some potential residents (especially, as D. Gorton points out in his comment, doctors, professors, and other professionals, who are the residents we want most). I think it’s possible to overestimate the “ugly effect” but in Carbondale I think we underestimate it. One of the things that draw people to small towns is the nice, quaint downtowns. Unfortunately, we demolished our quaint downtown and replaced it with parking lots and low slung, single story buildings. With the right zoning regulations, the right incentives, and (probably) some subsidized parking, we could rebuild, but I’m not sure we have the will. Incidentally, I appreciated your work with Friends for Fair Growth.

    D. Gorton: I may have been a bit over-broad. I don’t think green space is only useful when it’s public space. I’ll give one example: my back yard. That’s green space and it isn’t open to the public. But it is used by someone. It isn’t like the First Southern yard, which sits there doing nothing, being used by no one. And I agree that landscaping is valuable to the community, both in private front yards (which are in public view and sort of part of the public space) as well as on on public land (like the grassy strips between the street and the sidewalk or the planters around city hall).

    Where we may disagree is on the utility of a large yard surrounding a private business so near the center of town. Imagine if First Southern was built on a smaller lot which was entirely or mostly covered by the building and its parking. Ditto for the Stadium Grill and all the other developments in that area. Imagine further that a piece of contiguous land equal to the total area taken up by those business yards were developed in the TIF district and open to the public. Reasonable people can disagree, but I think we’d be better served by that type of development than by a proliferation of private business yards. In this scenario, there could still be some landscaping around the building (flower beds, trees in the parking lot, low shrubs around the periphery of the lot, etc).

    I didn’t point this out in the post, and I probably should have, but I’m really only talking about businesses in and near the center of town. Think of the doctor’s offices in the Cedar Court development on the corner of Route 13 and Striegel Road. That’s an example of an area where a landscaped “business yard” is entirely appropriate. It’s on the edge of town and outside the traditional street grid. The entire development is on a cul-de-sac. It would be long hike from the main residential neighborhoods. In other words, it isn’t meant to be compact and walkable. It isn’t as necessary to use space efficiently.

    Some of Kunstler’s criticism of Missoula doesn’t apply to Carbondale – especially the street trees. In some parts of town (I’m thinking especially of the part of Walnut St. that runs through the Arbor District), we have lots of street trees, which are especially beautiful when they flower in the spring. But other criticisms do apply. You correctly mention the overabundance of parking lots. I’d argue that many of our building facades are “dreary” and “artless,” if not downright ugly. Some of that, as you mention, is due to decay. Some landlords have let their buildings deteriorate or have covered them with the worst possible shade of vinyl siding. Other buildings (think of the Home Rentals apartments on West College) were never attractive. I doubt appearance was even considered when those buildings were designed.

    One brief note about the strip. I’d argue that it proves my point – at least the north portion of it. Walking north from College Street, we have a huge parking lot surrounding Old National bank, a smaller parking lot north of the old Pagliai’s building, a smaller lot between Hangar 9 and the new Pag’s, a mid-size parking lot north of the new Pag’s, a large parking lot around Dairy Queen, another parking lot for the Amtrak Station, and a decent sized parking lot next to PK’s. There’s also the large city lot behind the businesses on the east side of the strip. We also recently tore down a building between Amtrak and the bicycle shop. If we build a multi-modal transportation facility there, that will be a good thing. If we pave it over (or let grass grow on it, as it is now) that’s bad. My point is that the north half of the strip is mostly empty (open) space. It isn’t green space, but it’s empty.

    I’d argue that the poor business climate on the strip could be improved by filling in some of that space – ideally with mixed use structures that include commercial and residential space. The comprehensive plan calls for that type of development in Chapter 2, and includes a proposal with a graphic (figure 2.12, page 2.30). More people living on or very near the strip means more foot traffic. More foot traffic means more potential customers.

    Of course, it’s still necessary to accommodate cars. Above, I mentioned my dream that we’d build a parking garage on the old Tuscan Lodge site. Here I’ll mention another dream – that we’d build a parking garage on the current Old National bank lot between Old Town liquor and Dairy Queen. Ideally, this parking garage would feature retail space on the ground floor with parking above. With a garage in place, property owners on (and very near) the strip could put buildings on some of the parking lots currently on the strip. Athens, Ohio (home of Ohio University and a town of similar size to Carbondale) has a city-owned garage near downtown and folks tell me it’s working out well (although it’s unattractive). Of course, it would likely be a revenue loser and the same issues that would stop a garage on the old Tuscan Lodge site (high cost, political resistance, etc.) would stop a garage on the strip. But I can still dream…

    Link to the Athens, OH garage: http://www.ohio.edu/athens/bldgs/cgarage.html

    The Carbondale Observer

    August 18, 2011 at 10:11 pm

  7. Wow, one of the best Carbondale debates ever. This folks is what we need. our community has so much potential. keep up the good work! Brian.

    Anonymous

    August 18, 2011 at 10:33 pm

  8. Brian: Thanks for the comment! I’m really enjoying the conversation on this post.

    Everyone Else: I mentioned in the post that I want to write another post on this topic, this time in response to a statement by the library’s board of directors. I’ve written that post but, as I also mentioned in the post, blog traffic generally declines on Fridays and I’m reluctant to publish a long post on a topic I’m passionate about on a day when fewer people will read it. I also wrote a pretty long reply to the comments on this post. In fact, the reply was long enough to be a post of its own.

    Considering the lower blog traffic on Fridays, the great conversation we’re having in this comment thread, and the length of my reply, I’ve decided to hold the next post until Monday and let this one stay at the top of the homepage until then.

    Additional comments are welcome.

    The Carbondale Observer

    August 19, 2011 at 7:30 am

  9. Thanks for this fine discussion. I suppose one additional complication is whether we design Carbondale to attract out of town shoppers or design Carbondale for the people who live (and walk) in Carbondale. I will venture to say that most people driving to town wouldn’t be terribly interested in parking and shopping downtown even if we get the dream garages discussed here; they are going to be more comfortable parking at a big box store or out at the mall. Of course we want people to come here and spend money–and Carbondale does have a responsibility, based partially but not only on those very sales tax revenues, to take into consideration the interests of those well outside the city limits. But I’m not sure Carbondale and the surrounding area have enough economic muscle to promote both big box development along 13 and a vibrant downtown. Maybe I’m too pessimistic (and I certainly am no expert), but I fear that if we continue to try both to promote growth on the outskirts and promote downtown we’ll end up improving neither that much. I’m not sure Carbondale can be both the commericial hub for Southern Illinois (“the Capital of Southern Illinois”) and a vibrant college town, as these two visions require different sorts of development, and we may not have the mojo to do both. If we aim to do both, given the American default setting, we’ll end up continuing to look like a Marion wannabe, with a decaying center.

    My inclination, as you might guess, would be to push us in the direction of College Town rather than Commerical Hub (and it’s likely most on this blog will feel likewise, though perhaps I’ve put things rather starkly). We’ve got a university: Marion doesn’t. They’ve got the interstate: we don’t. So go with where our potential lies. I think that would be better for most people who live in Carbondale. But it might not serve the wider economic interests of the region as much–or rather, I suppose, it may allow more commericial business to leak out to Marion.

    David Johnson

    August 19, 2011 at 9:37 am

  10. I kind of like this series of ideas, green space, big houses, vs. walking. Nice. This is so universal in the USofA, it gives me a sense of deja vu.

    Then the comments start to run into the redevelopment of Illinois Ave? There is an old expression about building in Carbondale, “the third owner makes money.” We see the bucks going into big box, big parking lot spaces. We might be led to believe that the business people know something? Even at the top of the garbage loan era, we still didn’t see redevelopment of “the strip.” No parking, no space inside the buildings, no customers. This is true everywhere. You ever wonder how much more business Lance would be doing in his burger place if he had parking or a drive through?

    I have to give a bow to the people who list First Southern Bank as an example. They are a key exception to the normal rules. Their were two fine banks (and a few bad ones) in Carbondale, serving the local community, and making a bunch of money. One was acquired and fell on their own sword by forgetting that customers were more important than the corporate office. The second had their management team get old and stalled. First Southern was created in responses to the vacuum in bank service in Carbondale and they did well. It is a cool example of good people doing it right, but I’m not sure we will see other companies emerge in the same way. It is hard to see the money, and successfully take that much market share from existing competitors. Like many of us, making your move, in the teeth of the right market conditions can work wonderfully.

    I have heard all sorts of interesting ideas over the years about retail development in Carbondale. Unfortunately, retail is a zero sum game. Doesn’t create new jobs, doesn’t drive more sales tax revenue.

    Did someone really suggest turning the DQ into a park? Isn’t that the second biggest draw into downtown Carbondale, behind Quatro’s? Not pretty, but it does draw the people.

    PtG

    August 19, 2011 at 6:00 pm

  11. David Johnson: I agree that most shoppers from the smaller towns around Carbondale wouldn’t come downtown to shop even if we had nice new garages and a redeveloped strip. A lot of the folks from the surrounding towns think Carbondale is The Big City (strange but true) and most of them are afraid of cities. A more urban pattern of development would not appeal to most (but not all) of them.

    I think former mayoral candidate George Maroney was on to something when he said the future of the strip is as an entertainment district. That would include the existing bars and restaurants, possibly with room for a few more restaurants if they filled a gap in the market. I’d add that there’s room for additional residential space, and I think certain kinds of offices could be added. I’m thinking of places like the Arthur Agency (located on the town square) which don’t have tons of customers coming and going all day.

    Of course, there is some retail on or very near the strip (three bike shops, 710, UniversiTees, a clothing store and a camera store on Freeman east of Quatro’s). There may be room for some smaller stores aimed primarily at a student clientele. On the whole, though, I don’t think retail is the future of the strip.

    On the question of whether to focus on “college town” style development in the downtown or sprawling, big box/commercial hub development on the east side, I’m torn. My heart says focus on downtown and on becoming a better college town, both because I prefer that style of development and because I think it would help the university. My head says that Carbondale depends on sales tax revenue and most of that comes from the big boxes and strip malls on the east side.

    If we lost that tax base, we’d have a big hole to fill. I can’t imagine that even a wildly successful redevelopment of downtown could generate enough revenue to make up for significant losses on the east side. I don’t think we can raise property taxes enough to fill a hole that size. That would mean cutting into government services, and people in Carbondale (myself included) really love our services.

    I’m not entirely convinced that we have to choose between the two. You’re correct to point out that Marion is our competition for commercial hub status, and they certainly have more commercial development than Carbondale. I don’t think we can realistically expect to “beat” Marion in commercial development, but I do think we can hold our own. I’ll explain.

    In the last few years, Kohl’s, Dick’s, Best Buy, Petco, TJ Maxx, and The Party Store have chosen to locate here. Kohl’s, Dick’s, Best Buy, and TJ Maxx are great additions from a sales tax point of view. While Walgreen’s was closing stores in other areas, they decided to build a second Carbondale location on the west side. Our commercial development isn’t as vigorous as Marion’s, but we’re doing pretty well.

    It’s true that some buildings on the east side have been empty for a long time: the former Rex Electronics (which is about to become the new Goodwill), the former OfficeMax/Office Depot, and, worst of all, the former K’s Merchandise in the mall. I wonder, though, if that has more to do with the size of the buildings (Rex and OfficeMax/Office Depot being too small, and K’s Merchandise being too large) than with the general health of our retail sector.

    It’s true that Marion has more commercial development than Carbondale but, in general, I think the stores that locate in Carbondale are better. There are some exceptions. Home Depot (Marion) is generally thought to be a better home improvement store than Lowes. I’m not sure why (I prefer Lowe’s) but it may have something to do with prices. Most damning is that we have to drive to Marion to go to Target, which I prefer over Wal-Mart.

    Another thing to remember about Marion: their commercial development has so far relied on subsidies. I think I recall reading on Deo Volente that you came to Carbondale in 1998, so you wouldn’t remember Marion in the late eighties. There wasn’t much going on in Marion back then.

    It was only after their mayor (or, if you prefer, dictator for life) was disbarred and had his full time to devote to city business that Marion really started to develop. The first step, in the late eighties, was to use a TIF district to construct their mall. The next step, in the early or mid-nineties, was to poach Sears from the Carbondale mall. Fourteen or fifteen TIF districts later and we have the Marion we all know today. Even their “professional” baseball team relied on a $3,000,000 subsidy from the state of Illinois and a dedicated sales tax subsidy from the city of Marion.

    Now, of course, we have the STAR bond district – the mother of all subsidies. I’m hoping that development will fail, but Butler is wily and if there’s a way to make it succeed, he’ll likely find it. If it does work out, it could be fatal to our status as a regional hub.

    The enabling legislation for the STAR bond district was written in a way that prohibits direct business poaching (businesses currently located within a 25 mile radius of the district are prohibited from relocating there and benefiting from its subsidies) but indirect poaching seems possible. Example: if Cabela’s opens in the STAR bond district, can Dick’s survive in Carbondale? It’s an open question.

    I’d also point to service area population. There are lots of smaller towns in the area, and some “belong” to Carbondale while others “belong” to Marion. All of Jackson and Perry counties and the “Tri-Co” portion of Randolph county belong to Carbondale. We share Union county and Carterville, Crainville, and Herrin/Energy with Marion. Franklin and Saline counties belong to Marion, as does eastern Williamson county.

    This idea that folks “belong” to Carbondale or Marion is obviously imperfect. If you’re from Du Quoin and you want to go to Toys “R” Us, you have to go to Marion. And even people from Marion have to come to Carbondale if they want to shop at Kohl’s, JC Penney, Macy’s, or Best Buy. Really, we all share everyone, but if you “belong” to Carbondale and you want to make a quick shopping trip, you’ll most likely come here. Ditto for Marion. It’s imperfect, but it’s useful.

    The population of the places that belong to Carbondale is around 80,000. That’s roughly 60,000 in Jackson county and 20,000 from Perry (I’m excluding the 2,000 or so residents of Perry county who make their home in the Pinckneyville prison, and our share of Randolph county is negligible). If you also assign Carbondale half of the folks we share with Marion, we’re closer to 100,000 (9,000 from Union county and 7,500 from Carterville/Craineville/Herrin/Energy). That’s enough to support a decent big box retail sector.

    One other thing I’d point out: we obviously can’t match the STAR bond subsidies, but we can play the TIF subsidy game just the same as Marion can. I’d prefer not to do it, and I think most of Carbondale would agree with me. But if the alternative was completely losing our sales tax revenue to Marion, I don’t see that we’d have much choice. I don’t think we need to do that yet; to the best of my knowledge, we recruited Kohl’s, Dick’s, Best Buy, etc. without resorting to the kinds of subsidies employed in Marion. But, if necessary, we do have that tool in our toolbox.

    This is an area where I think Joel Fritzler was pretty close to correct when he was campaigning for mayor. A few years ago, the east side was in trouble and needed attention. We gave it the attention it needed, and it’s doing pretty well now. We can’t neglect it, but we don’t have to focus as much energy there as we did in the past. Meanwhile, the downtown has been somewhat neglected. We would benefit from turning some of our attention to the core of the city and developing (and executing) a good plan to get that area back on track.The university would benefit, and the community benefits from a healthy university.

    PtG: You make several points in your post, and I’ll respond to a few of them. I’ll start with the strip. Take a look back at my comment above. There’s plenty of parking on the strip – maybe too much. The problem is the balance between business/residence and parking. We have too much parking for what’s there, but if we put new business or residences on existing parking, we end up with too little parking. That’s why I point to the garage solution. You can fill in the strip without losing parking. This obviously would come at a cost, but all progress costs something.

    I haven’t heard the aphorism that the third owner makes the money, but it does make some sense and you were around before I was, so I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. If it’s true, it discourages the first owner (who we’d rely on to do the redevelopment) and the second owner. One thing I’d point out, as I mentioned above, is the availability of subsidies to help a first owner make some money (which would presumably also help a second owner).

    As I said above, I’m reluctant to subsidize private business except, in the downtown, with parking. But the argument in favor of a subsidy (whether through TIF or through other means) is that the net benefit to the community outweighs the cost of the subsidy. I’m uncommitted here – it’s possible that a subsidy would be wasted money and it’s possible that we’d be smart to offer one – but it might be worth a look.

    As I mentioned above, the STAR bond district could be a serious threat to our sales tax base, which means it could affect our ability to pay for a subsidy. We’d be wise to adopt a wait and see approach before we commit ourselves to a lot of new spending. On the other hand, there are probably some changes we could make at pretty low cost to the community. I’m thinking mainly of zoning reform, which might make a more urban style of development easier and more profitable. We’d have to proceed carefully, but there may be opportunity there.

    You mention the acres of parking surrounding the sprawl developments on the east side as evidence that maybe business knows something. First, I’m inclined to believe that business usually does know something. They have lots of real dollars invested, so they have the incentive to know things. But I could point out that parking requirements are mandated by the city. Kohl’s planners might have thought that they could make do with 20% less parking. Too bad. The city’s planners feel differently, and their decisions are the ones that matter.

    I’d also point out that, by your logic, the money going into “garbage loans” during the credit bubble showed that business knew where the smart money was. Turns out that would have been a poor assumption. Really, business is as prone to “irrational enthusiasm” (if I can borrow a phrase from Greenspan) and panic as any private citizen. Maybe, because lots of real dollars are at stake, business is more prone to these reactions than private citizens.

    I can’t comment on the virtues of First Southern as a bank – I’ve always banked with the Credit Union. I can comment on the urban design that went into their headquarters on Marion St., and, as I argue above, I think we would have benefited either from a more urban design at their current address or from the design they chose, but located a little farther from the center of town. But, as I mention above, this is an area where reasonable people can disagree.

    As to retail being a zero sum game: maybe yes, maybe no. Yes, if we’re talking about a new development competing with an existing business already in town. No, if we’re talking about a new development that fills a gap in the local market. Maybe there is some retail business that could be supported in southern Illinois but isn’t currently here (or makes more sense in Carbondale but is currently in Marion). I don’t know any examples here, but it’s at least possible.

    You mentioned a proposal to turn Dairy Queen into a park. I haven’t heard of it, but it would be a mistake. That old Dairy Queen is ugly, as you mention, but it’s popular. I think I remember reading it’s the oldest DQ in the country, or one of the oldest. That isn’t any great claim to fame, but it’s kind of cool. Of course, if we had my dream garage on the Old National lot, DQ might not need its large parking lot. Maybe some of that space could be used for a nice, mixed-use building. Of course, the parking garage isn’t going to happen so the entire discussion is speculative.

    One other note on Lance Jack and Fat Patties. Scott Thorne at the Carbondaze Gazette made a good point in a comment back in June. He mentioned in his post that if Jack was relying on beer sales to prop up his restaurant his business plan may need a little work. I replied that alcohol sales may make up less than 50% of the gross sales while making up a large portion of the profit. Thorne replied that his sense was that Jack was relying on foot traffic. Thorne correctly points out that foot traffic has declined in recent years (we could talk about the reasons for that decline in a future post). Anyway, the whole post and the comments are worth a look. Here’s a link: http://carbondazegazette.blogspot.com/2011/06/fat-patties-licensed.html

    And on the question of sprawl and large house/large lot versus a more urban pattern, I’d refer you to an Atlantic article from March 2008. I’m not sure everything in here is right, but it’s worth thinking about. Here’s another link: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/03/the-next-slum/6653/1/

    Thanks to both David Johnson and PtG for the comments!

    The Carbondale Observer

    August 20, 2011 at 11:19 pm

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