The Carbondale Observer

News and commentary about Carbondale, Illinois and SIUC

Apartments a Key Part of Neighborhood Revitalization

with 13 comments

[This is the second post in a series about density, green space, urban design, and neighborhood revitalization. If you haven’t done so yet, I’d encourage you to click here to check out the previous post. It attracted several thoughtful comments from community members. In addition to the community comments, I’ve written around 6,000 words there between the original post and two comments. It’s worth a look. ]

In Thursday’s post, I wrote about density, green space, and neighborhood revitalization in the context of the city council’s discussion of Home Rentals’ special use permit to build a four unit apartment building on Monroe Street next to the library. I initially also planned to write a response to a statement from the library’s board of directors, but Thursday’s post was too long and I decided to separate the two posts.  

Before I begin, I want to point out that I’m not picking on the library or its board of directors. I opposed the Home Rentals special use permit and, of the available options, my preference for this particular parcel is that it be donated to the library. But there was one section of the board’s statement that I’d like to address. Here’s the entire statement, which I got from the Carbondaze Gazette blog, with the part I want to respond to in bold:

The Public Library has a strong interest in the property in question; we reaffirm our opposition to the apartments and agree that the library would be willing to take stewardship of the property if, for example, it were donated to the library.”

Board members also noted that if there is to be any hope of renewal in this neighborhood we cannot have more apartments added. We talked about the fact that the property could be maintained as green space, and  could possibly be used to expand library parking, as I will be seeking grant funds to make our annex building (formerly part of Brush school) a more usable and attractive space. Right now, when we have book sales in that building, or large events at the library, our parking lot is completely filled with customers.

In short, if the special use permit passes, there will be yet another apartment complex in Carbondale, where there are already more apartments than the landlords can fill. This is an historic neighborhood, and in my opinion there are better options. We, and our neighbors are very concerned that if an apartment complex is built, the property will not be well maintained. To illustrate this point, I have attached a few examples of what tends to become of Home Rentals’ property over the years.

I’ll address the first bold sentence first, then move on to the second. The board’s statement says that new apartments will prevent renewal in the neighborhood. I think the opposite is true. New apartments are a key part of neighborhood renewal in the central part of town. This, like my views on density and green space, runs contrary to conventional wisdom in Carbondale, so I will again explain at length.

Undoubtedly, many residents of the neighborhood would like to see fewer apartments and rental houses and more owner occupied single family housing. I can see why – owner occupied housing is generally better maintained and neighborhoods with a higher proportion of owner occupied housing are generally more stable than neighborhoods filled with renters. And I think there is room for some conversion of former rental houses back to owner occupied homes. But I doubt that conversion alone will be enough to solve the problem.

To explain, I’ll tell you about a building I lived in for a year. The building is on West Walnut St., in the Arbor District. It’s an old home that has been cut up into apartments. There are two one bedroom apartments on the first floor, two on the second floor, and a two bedroom apartment in the basement. I lived in a one bedroom unit and I paid $325 per month in rent. I assume that the rent was the same for all of the one bedroom apartments. I don’t know the rent on the two bedroom, so I’ll just guess that it’s $450 per month, which is at least in the ballpark. The building was fully rented when I lived there.

That means the owners were raking in around $1,750 per month from that one building. The landlord inherited the building from a parent who was also a landlord, so I feel pretty confident that the building has been paid off for many years. That means most of that $1,750 per month is profit. Sure, there are property taxes. And there are some maintenance expenses, but there can’t be many because the building is in pretty bad shape on the inside, and the outside isn’t especially great. During the time I was there, I wasn’t aware of much maintenance occurring.

Since the building is in such poor shape, it likely wouldn’t appraise for much. I guess I could go over to the courthouse and find out what the county thinks it’s worth, but I work a day job and I’m not interested in taking time off to go to Murphysboro and dig up property values. The appraised value isn’t even that important, but I’m betting it’s fairly low – say something around $100k, maybe less.

But it’s worth more than that to the owners. They’re bringing in $1,750 per month on the building. It’s an income property. If they sell it, they lose that income. That means it’s worth quite a lot to them. The chance that this building will be bought by a family interested in converting it back to a single family home is essentially zero. First, it isn’t for sale. Second, if it were for sale, it would be cost prohibitive to convert it back to single family use.

A buyer would have to pay an income property price, then pay a contractor to gut the house and essentially rebuild it. Even if it were completely rehabbed, the house would never, ever sell for enough to recoup the cost of conversion. That’s important because the person who converts a building to a single family owner occupied home might decide to leave town and wouldn’t want to take a loss. I can’t imagine that specific building ever being converted back to a single family residence.

So what will happen to it? My guess is that it will continue to decay, with the landlord making only the minimum necessary repairs. If maintenance is neglected long enough it will eventually be torn down, but that could be decades in the future. Even once it’s torn down there is no guarantee that the property would be sold for a new single family home. The price for the lot might still be too high, which has been a problem in Carbondale.

Are there other options? I think so. One option is that a future buyer (or the current owner) could redevelop the property at a higher level of density. More apartments, or more bedrooms, means more rent. That additional income might make redevelopment possible. Another option, though less likely, is redevelopment featuring the same number of apartments, but at a higher level of quality (earning more rent each month).

Redevelopment requires a developer to absorb the value of existing structures, the land they sit on, and the cost of demolition and construction (or rehabilitation). If a developer can’t earn enough income to cover these costs and make a profit, redevelopment won’t happen. Greater density helps earn the income necessary to pay for redevelopment.

The point I’m trying to make is that if we adopt a “no additional apartments” attitude, we make redevelopment of certain properties impossible, or at least much less likely. I think we’d be better off if we accepted additional apartments and focused instead on quality and target market. This brings me to the second bold sentence from the library board’s statement.

The board says Carbondale already has “more apartments than the landlords can fill.” There has definitely some increase in vacancy in the older apartments in the center of town since the newer apartments have been added on the south and southeast sides of town. I’m not sure that means we have too many apartments; it may just mean that we have the wrong type of apartments. I’ll explain.

In Carbondale, apartments are generally assumed to house students. No surprise there – we’re a university town. But not all apartments are aimed at a student market. My understanding is that the Sun Valley apartments off Striegel Road on the west side of town are mostly rented by working families. Some of the apartments on Robinson Circle are also aimed at a non-student market.

If I recall correctly, former mayor Brad Cole set a goal to increase the number of people choosing to retire to Carbondale. Maybe that goal left town with Cole but if we’re still hoping to attract retirees, nice apartments near the center of town might appeal to some of them. And don’t forget those working families who live in the Sun Valley apartments or on Robinson Circle. Some of them might be drawn to apartments in the center of town if the quality and the price were right.

With some exceptions, the only tenants available for most of the existing apartments in the center of town, many of which are dumps, are students and the very poor. Since the developments on the south and southeast sides have increased the supply of higher quality student apartments, it has become harder to rent the old dumps to students. That leaves only the very poor as potential tenants. Would we prefer to have the existing number of dumps being rented to the very poor, or a higher number of higher quality apartments being rented to a different market? I think the choice is obvious.

I’ll close with a couple of additional points. In this post, I’ve been talking about redevelopment of existing apartments. The proposed development that led me to write this post would have built new apartments on vacant land. That’s a big difference. Redeveloping slum apartments is good for the community. Adding brand new apartments without redeveloping existing slums may or may not be good.

I also think that the obstacles to conversion of old rental houses to single family housing are less troublesome than the obstacles preventing conversion of apartment buildings. A shabby rental house might earn $500 or $600 per month, while a shabby apartment building can earn in the neighborhood of $1,750. That’s why I say conversion of old rental properties is a part of the solution.

And if it becomes impossible for landlords to find tenants for their slum apartments, even among the very poor, they may start letting them go at fire sale prices. That could make conversion to single family homes possible. But I’m not sure that’s likely. During the year I spent on Walnut Street, there was no vacancy in my building or any neighboring building, and that was after the new apartments were built on the south and southeast sides of town.

I think that’s because some people prefer to live near the center of town. That’s why I chose to live on Walnut Street, even though the apartment was of lower quality than I would have preferred. That’s also why I think there is a market for higher quality apartments near the center of town.

I’d also suggest that we look to the recently adopted comprehensive plan for guidance. If you’re interested, you can click here to get to the summary page, or skip that step and click here for the full pdf. Chapter 4 deals with housing, and on page 4.3 you’ll find an interesting section about alternative housing types. Even more interesting is the suggestion on page 4.9 that we “[d]evelop a not-for-profit housing organization to act as a ‘lead agency’ in housing related initiatives and grant applications.”

I recall that back in 2009, a proposal to do exactly that was delivered to the mayor (see this link). The organization would have been called Renew Carbondale. As far as I know, the mayor didn’t do anything with that proposal. But we’ve got a new mayor and a new council. It might be time to resurrect that proposal. A “lead agency” might result in a major improvement to our housing stock. It’s certainly worth another look, especially considering the change in the city’s political leadership.

Finally, I should point out that I don’t think the kind of redevelopment I’ve described and argued for in this post is likely to happen in the near future. As long as the current landlords are making money they don’t have much incentive to change course. And any redevelopment like what I’ve described would likely encounter political resistance. Maybe things will change in the future. I hope so, and I hope the change is for the better.

Comments are welcome.

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Written by The Carbondale Observer

August 22, 2011 at 7:45 am

13 Responses

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  1. I’m not sure that the council is rejecting the idea of rebuilding or refurnishing apartments, my understanding is that they are rejecting the idea that property that could be used for homes, or used to serve the good of the betterment of the community, should not be turned into apartments (especially by the likes of Home Rentals – a two generation slum lord family operation. If an apartment already exists, fine, but don’t saturate the market with expansion for which there isn’t any need.

    The place you’re referencing as living in – and I’ve lived in a few of the wonderful student housing areas around town as well – are exactly the problems posed by the slumlords in this town. For decades, permanent residents have given the slum lords a pass by either saying, “Well, that’s just the way its always been,” or worse, “Carbondale is a student town, so you should have known that before you moved here.”

    The former shows the reluctance to make any improvements to the community at all, which means that Carbondale continues to be ghettoized by block busting slum lords, and the more that continues, the less there will be any injection of entrepreneurship or economic growth… unless the vision of payday loan joints, pawn shops and 24 hour quickie marts is a romantic idea for the future.

    Brad’s idea of turning Carbondale into a retirement community was a joke. Given the choice of all the places to live, why in the world would a senior citizen choose to live across the street from a ramshackle on-again/off-again quasi fraternity house, complete with beer bottle smashing contests into the early morning hours? Maybe that was just my experience living on the corner of Grand and Wall, but an early Sunday morning walk on College St. usually tells the story of the previous night’s proclivities.

    The only way to revitalize Carbondale is to attract new investment, which is either going to be from people who want to live there that weren’t living there before, or businesses that want to cater to the community. For the first to happen, those folks are going to want to invest their money in property they know will appreciate in value, that they can grow roots, meet someone special if they haven’t, and build a life.

    Sure, “starter homes” can come in the appearance of a rental: I currently rent a 3 bedroom with my girlfriend. But we specifically chose to live in a family neighborhood, on the opposite end of town from students. We both work and don’t want to listen to parties, we don’t want to feel unsafe walking our dogs around in the evening, she doesn’t want to be constantly hit on when she walks alone, and we sure don’t want to live near properties that can be rented as Section 8 or “college apartments” stuffed with strange people who are clearly not in college.

    That’s part of the problem too – those slum lords say they are building “college apartment complexes” but the reality is they could care less who occupies the space so long as they get their money in the end; which is guaranteed to happen since they don’t maintain their property to point nobody but a person with no other place to live will live there.

    Now you have predators, thugs, and low-lives living amongst students; waiting for their opportunity to rob them or burglarize their belongings when they go away during Spring, Summer, Fall and Christmas breaks. My storage space was burglarized on three occasions; once in high school when my family and I were sleeping the house was burglarized during the night; my parents were recently burglarized in broad daylight from people living in a Section 8 owned by Home Rentals less than a block away; my parents have had to call the police so many times it boggles the mind because of the predators and trash that are stuffed amongst college students looking for affordable places to live while they eek through college.

    Keep in mind, none of this is theoretical. This is in fact what has become of the college community surrounding the University. All those new properties that sprung up on the skirts of town were the direct result of not confronting this slum lord and block busting policy 20 or 30 years ago.

    And rather then the city do anything to encourage better living conditions for students, what did Brad Cole do? He worked to put the kabash on any more expansion because it threatened the livelihood of slum lords. God forbid they go out of business! The provide such an essential service to the community!

    But now suddenly we have Home Rentals applying for a permit to build more apartments? Uhm… so we can’t build it on the outside of town, but we can build it on the inside of town, and we can do it in a time when it isn’t need at all, and by a company whose original owner is serving a prison sentence for trading sexual favors with a minor and a tenant, has a very long history of block busting, doesn’t maintain property, rents to section 8 instead of college students, received a huge unethical payoff from Brad Cole to surrender the drug squatters house that used to exist on Green St., and is now run by his maniac daughter who is in some regards worse then he was?

    Vomit.

    Ace

    August 22, 2011 at 9:29 am

    • I wrote “Green St.” out of habit, but I mean The Strip.

      Ace

      August 22, 2011 at 9:34 am

  2. I appreciate this discussion, and hope I can add something to it. First, I want to quibble with some figures. The assumptions that underlie slumlord housing take numbers very, very seriously.

    You wrote: “I lived in a one bedroom unit and I paid $325 per month in rent. I assume that the rent was the same for all of the one bedroom apartments. I don’t know the rent on the two bedroom, so I’ll just guess that it’s $450 per month, which is at least in the ballpark. The building was fully rented when I lived there.”

    The going rate for an apartment close in to SIUC ranges around $300-$350 per ROOM. So the monthly gross from your building was close to $2000. Or $24,000 per year. You can see this from the ads in the DE from Home Rentals that list the houses as having X number of rooms.

    You wrote: “Since the building is in such poor shape, it likely wouldn’t appraise for much…….The appraised value isn’t even that important, but I’m betting it’s fairly low – say something around $100k, maybe less.”

    Actually the appraised value is crucial to the business models of slumlords. We did research on Cherry St. It is unique in that one side of the street is mostly slumlord housing R-3, including Fisher, and the other side is zoned R-1, and is mostly owner occupied. The owners kept up their houses, of course, since they wanted a good place to live and cared about its appearance. Moreover, the house was their largest single asset. The net result is that the appraised value of the homeowners was much higher than the slumlords.

    City services are also more in demand among slumlord housing than the homeowners. Every thing from police services to sewer maintenance in neighborhoods with overcrowded dwellings to garbage pick up. As a result, taxes in Jackson County/Carbondale are some of the highest in the United States. So, avoiding taxes on your property is critical to the business plan of slum lords. That means that the fewer and fewer owner occupied homes shoulder more and more of the tax burden. In turn, that means that more and more home owners leave Carbondale and the slumlords buy their houses to create the cycle again.

    You said that the value was around $100K of the house you lived in. I don’t think so. The houses are only traded among slumlords, off the market, and seldom for anything over $55K. The same has been true of foreclosed properties where the lawyers for the slumlords get in front of the line for the bank sales. Everyone else is cut out. In the case of Home Rentals, they never sell their property. Actually, it might be worth your while to replicate our findings at the Courthouse in Murphysboro.

    There is a legal method of taxation that would treat rental properties as businesses and assess taxes based on that value. But, at present, they are treated the same as a retired black school teacher on her pension living in her own home in Northwest Carbondale.

    With this as a background, it may help explain the continuing slide of our housing stock. It is not a level playing field, and the “state” is at the center of the issue. Particularly in the realm of taxation and code enforcement.

    DG

    Below is information on taxes in Jackson County. Bear in mind the yawning differential between owner occupied tax rates and slum tax rates. So that “average” is somewhat of a misnomer. Its shaped like a dumb bell with homeowners paying a vastly disproportionate amount of taxes:

    Jackson County has one of the highest median property tax rates in the United States — see comparisons with neighboring counties below http://www.tax-rates.org/illinois/jackson_county_property_tax

    Average property tax in Jackson County relative to surrounding counties:
    Jackson County – $1,504. @ 2.88% of yearly income
    Williamson County – $1,130. @ 2.44% of yearly income.
    Union County – $974. @ 2.06% of yearly income.
    Perry County – $1,043. @ 2.33% of yearly income.

    Carbondale Elementary Dist. 95, Unity Point Dist 140, and Giant City Dist 130 tax rates:
    Dist 95 – 3.237
    Dist 140 – 2.385
    Dist 130 – 2.824

    School Taxes as a dollar figure per “assessed” valuation:
    Comparison of 2010 taxes on a $50,000 home in
    Carbondale City Dist 95 $4,403
    Makanda Township, Giant City Dist 130 – $3,622
    Makanda Township, Unity Point Dist 140 – $3,403

    Carbondale has additional taxing districts:
    Carbondale City – 0.264
    Carbondale Park Dist. – 0.487
    Mosquito – 0.032
    Carbondale Library – 0.278
    Southern Illinois Airport – 0.207

    Township taxes:
    Carbondale Twp – 0.236;
    Makanda Twp – 0.256

    D Gorton

    August 22, 2011 at 11:39 am

  3. Most Jackson County property information is available on-line through the County Assessment Office (wEdge Online is the link from the County Assessment Office page). Here’s the direct link: http://tax.jacksoncounty-il.gov/propertyinquiry.pl You can search by address, owner’s name, parcel number (PIN), and other criteria. The web’s a wonderful thing.

    Jane Adams

    August 22, 2011 at 5:10 pm

  4. Good comments. I’m going to respond to all of them in a single post rather than writing three separate replies.

    Ace: I think most of your analysis of the student housing situation in the center of town is accurate, as is your analysis of how we got here. I’ll clarify a few of my points.

    In response to your first paragraph, I wasn’t arguing that the council was rejecting the idea of rebuilding or refurbishing apartments. I was responding to a statement from the library’s board of directors that said “if there is to be any hope of renewal in this neighborhood we cannot have more apartments added.” The point of the post was to argue that additional apartments, if they’re aimed at the right market, are (in my view) essential to the renewal of the neighborhood.

    I should also point out again (although I mentioned it out in the post) that I’m not picking on the library or its staff or its board. I chose to reply to their statement because it stated in public a conventional wisdom that I’ve frequently heard stated in private and which I believe to be incorrect. I agree with the library’s larger position on this specific parcel, which is that Home Rentals shouldn’t be allowed to build apartments on it.

    About Cole’s plan to promote Carbondale as a retirement destination: I think he got the idea from an article published in (I think) Business Week around the the time he floated the idea. I could be wrong about that, but I read an article around then about small towns that are thriving rather than decaying along with most of rural America. The article claimed the recipe for success is research, recreation, and retirement. Carbondale, of course, has a research university and ample outdoor recreational opportunities.

    On the surface, it would make sense to add retirement to the mix. I’ve read in other places that college towns are becoming a favorite destination for retirees. In a college town you can leave behind the hustle and bustle of a large city while still having things to do. It’s at least possible that some people would choose to retire to Carbondale and, indeed, there are now at least two or three apartment communities aimed at seniors. Even SIU is considering getting in on the game by bulldozing Southern Hills and building a retirement community for alumni and retired faculty.

    But I’ll admit that I always found the idea a little screwy, for three reasons. First, the weather in Carbondale is awful. It’s miserably hot and humid in the summer and although the winters aren’t as cold as winters farther north, they aren’t exactly warm either. The second reason is that the university is in trouble, and everyone knows it. The third reason is that Carbondale is ugly.

    The thing people like about small towns are the quaint downtowns and the nice, affordable, older homes. We tore down our old downtown and replaced it with single story buildings slung so low to the ground that they look ashamed to exist, as they should be, or with grassy lots (all four corners of Washington and Walnut [in fairness, the old Peerless building had to go, as it had a tree growing through its roof], the old Bank of Carbondale building, the old Tuscan lodge, etc.). We still have some nice old homes, but many of them have been converted to slum apartments or torn down.

    Incidentally, I’d like to give you a link to the article I read a couple months before Cole announced the goal of increasing retirement in Carbondale, but I have never been able to find it again and I’ve looked on several occasions. It’s very frustrating. I can’t even remember for sure where I read it but, as I mentioned, I think it was Business Week.

    You also mentioned potential sources of investment in Carbondale, specifically mentioning from new residents moving in or from businesses that want to serve the community. I don’t have the time to engage fully with this point, so for now, I’ll just add a third potential source, which has yet to materialize: businesses formed by professors exploiting research coming out of the university.

    This topic could be a very long post of its own, even a series of posts, but I’m already going long here and I still have other comments to reply to. I’ll just say this. I see two possible roads to exploiting the economic potential of a university: a high road and a low road. The high road is what I’ve mentioned; high quality, economically valuable research in engineering and the sciences exploited by professors who start companies and hire their old grad students.

    The low road steers money away from academics and into capital investment. It spends money on new athletic facilities, which provide construction jobs to residents of the surrounding towns. The low road is over-staffing the university, especially in the civil service classifications, which also provides jobs to people from at least a four county area. I think it’s obvious which road we’ve chosen, and it was a colossal mistake.

    One final point. You mention the decision to call a moratorium on construction of large new apartment complexes. I agree with you. That was a stupid decision with no goal but the protection of existing landlords, many of whom operate substandard buildings and have made a fortune doing so. I seem to recall one of our newly elected council members speaking against that moratorium when it was being discussed a few years ago. Maybe it’s time to repeal the moratorium.

    D. Gorton: Great comment. You shifted my thinking on the value of property angle. My original thinking in the post, which I believe was sound, is that the appraised value doesn’t matter because the landlords would never sell their buildings for what was an undoubtedly low appraised value, which would present an obstacle to conversion to single family homes.

    If I read you correctly, you’re arguing that appraised value becomes important because property taxes are calculated on appraised value. Since the apartments are such dumps, there is a ceiling on the rents the landlords can charge. If we could get the property taxes higher, the landlords would be limited in their ability to raise rents to compensate. This could make running a slum apartment building unprofitable, which might lead to redevelopment. I like this idea a lot.

    I also like your idea of treating rental properties as businesses and taxing them at a higher rate than owner-occupied units. If that were combined with lifting the moratorium on large apartment developments cited above by Ace, that could put real pressure on the slumlords. A question: is that something we could do at the city or county level, or would it require enabling legislation at the state level?

    I was interested in the info you provided about trading of rental properties among slumlords off the market. I wasn’t aware that was going on. I knew Home Rentals never sells anything (except, notably, the American Tap for three times its value). I assumed other larger local landlords, who I won’t name here, also hold onto their properties forever. Of course, if they’re trading them among each other it amounts to the same thing, since the properties never leave the hands of slumlords.

    Thanks also for providing the comparison of tax rates in Jackson County and other counties. Looks like on average it costs an extra half a percent of annual income to live in Jackson County than to live in Williamson County. Does this partially explain the growth of Carterville? Seems likely, along with concerns about crime and schools. I think Carbondale and Jackson county would benefit from a conversation on how to get tax rates down in this county.

    Jane Adams: Thanks for the link. Maybe I’m a little slow, but I couldn’t get it to work. I tried searching for my old building by address and got zero results. I also tried searching by owner (although I don’t know if it’s owned individually or by a corporation or LLC) and also got nothing. I didn’t have the parcel number but I checked Google to see if I could find a way to get it, but with no luck. I spent about 40 minutes trying various searches and never got a result. I also tried searching for the house I live in now and found nothing. I’ll try again tomorrow…

    Thanks Ace, D. Gorton, and Jane Adams for the comments! Blogs are best when they lead to conversation, as these last two posts have done. Thanks for adding your voices.

    The Carbondale Observer

    August 22, 2011 at 9:46 pm

  5. I’m sure that others will chime in with astute observations, but I want to clarify a point: the keys to shifting the slumlords business plan are strict code enforcement and tax assessments. Note the recent confrontation with Campus Habitat.

    D Gorton

    August 23, 2011 at 8:51 am

  6. Hey You – mysterious blogger without a name. We need to coin something up for you.

    Thanks for the feedback and patient dissection; I think your pattern of posts so far on the blog have been consistent and level handed, so nobody should be worried about getting picked on without really good reason … which I think you would disclaim and explain beforehand through other thoughtful and articulate discussion.

    Now, I caught what you meant in the opening of the post but I have to disagree with it. I’m hard pressed to believe that apartments make any sort of significant positive impact on a neighborhood, or even a compounding positive impact when combined with other positive factors (hope that makes sense). On the inverse, I do believe that too many apartments can have a negative effect. But, who knows — in this economy, far more people are renting then buying right now, and who is to say this early on in The Great Recession whether renting will be short or long term?

    The idea that Cole picked up his inspiration from a weekly business magazine tickles me… I really can see the guy thumbing through one of those things for inspiration because while early on in he tenure I thought he was pretty good, but it quickly became clear after his re-election that he was utterly without a clue. Reading through that article and being utterly unable to understand the context and conditions makes total sense now. Whew! I’m glad that reign is over with. Okay, moving on… don’t want to get bogged down in attacking him.

    The downtown scene is a real shame. I gave up any hope for renewal when the old theater was unceremoniously demolished. I mean, not even a worthwhile attempt to fix it was made. Meanwhile, right across the street, the owners of the bars (who I assume own the building) did a meticulous job of restoration.

    The planning has long been short sighted in Carbondale. I’ve seen towns adopt planning and building regulations that require a specific type of architecture be used. I know the counter-argument is that with the lack of businesses, the last thing people should be required to do is spend extra money to make the building look nice since the important thing is just getting something built and occupied. I firmly believe that so long as a consistent architectural style is adhered to, it will attract new business development in that area. As the saying goes, Carbondale tends to be at least 10 years behind what other cities are doing.

    So case in point: Downtown Champaign was in utter ruins about 15 to 20 years ago and nearly all of the businesses left the area. The city decided to do a significant reinvestment and provide incentives for businesses to move into the area. Now, it’s beautiful and just booming with restaurants and condos. On any given night of the year, permanent residents and graduate students are out and about, spending their money. During the warms days, the streets are lined with tables and people eating, socializing. It’s wonderful. Now, Carbondale is about 1/4 to 1/5 the size of Urbana-Champaign, but what I envision would be a restoration of the old square much like what is downtown Champaign, and The Strip can remain a student destination much like Green Street. There would be incentives for property owners to update the outside of the buildings to create a consistent architecture (incentive, not force) and new buildings would be required to adhere to those policies.

    I don’t think it would be any sort of problem either. When the proposal was put forward from CVS to build a new pharmacy across the street from Shnucks, on what I believe would have required the leveling of one a few Home Rental properties, the residents of the Arbor District asked for CVS to conform to an architectural standard – representatives from CVS agreed, and before the entire idea was nixed, presented architectural representations of what it would look like (it was nice).

    I recently read a white paper detailing how the information age is over and done with; we are now in the “Consumer Age.” It basically means that businesses no longer control what consumers are given; consumers have all the power because its super easy to figure out who is offering the best deal, and so decide where to spend their money. I believe that idea is physical, as well as digital because its become clear over and over: when confronted with options of equal cost, consumers will choose the more attractive option. If Carbondale cannot even muster the ability to look attractive, nobody will want to move in; retirees or the young and affluent.

    There is the high road and the low road, but I think the high road as described may not be suitable for SIUC. Here’s the problem: SIUC is not an R1 university, and it probably never will be. Lots of good things come out of SIUC, but developing patents and profiting from them isn’t the answer, and I don’t think spawning an entrepreneurial center will work when the university can’t even figure out what its long term vision is.

    Plus, there are just a mound of other mistakes that SIUC would probably make. Look at UIUCs industrial park that largely sits vacant. The problem in that case wasn’t that there wasn’t enough room, its that the planning was so screwed up companies didn’t want to risk using their facilities. Instead, they went across the street and invested in nearby property. UIUCs industrial park requires that any renovations or construction to equip and outfit the facilities must be done by the university’s union employees, which notoriously charge an arm and a leg for mediocre jobs… like a full time light-bulb changer. I’m not kidding you – nobody can change a light bulb without the full time light bulb guy doing it, whenever he decides. And there are other egregious patterns as well.

    The biggest player in town, Wolfram Research, won’t build on the campus. They build and rent anywhere but on the campus. When the web browser was invented thanks to the NCSA and eventually formed Netscape, they didn’t build around the campus.

    So, I’m sorry to shoot holes in the idea. I think its a good idea, but I just don’t think its a game changer for Carbondale. When an R1 located less than 1-1/2 hours from Chicago can’t pull it off, I don’t have a lot of hope for SIUC.

    Any change has to be about the community, and it has to first be attractive, and it has to be able to keep away the scum bags that have preyed on it for decades.

    Oh geeze… I didn’t realize I wrote this long. Sorry!

    Ace

    August 23, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    • Ace: Great comment, and no need to apologize for the length. I love long comments.

      I love the idea of having architectural requirements, at least in certain parts of town (I’m thinking mainly of the downtown and the Arbor District, plus the area between Main, Oakland, Sycamore, and University Ave.) You mentioned the example of Champaign’s downtown renewal. Normal has started work on a similar project in their downtown. I may do a post on this in the future.

      On SIU’s research potential: I wasn’t clear enough. I think the choice to take the low road was made long ago and it’s unlikely that it will (or could) change. You probably remember that when Walter Wendler was Chancellor (this was how many Chancellors ago?) he pushed the Southern at 150 plan. It seemed to me that the goal was to build SIU into a second UIUC (okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but it isn’t much of one). I wasn’t blogging at the time, but I said privately that the plan was unrealistic.

      The state of Illinois simply isn’t willing to fund another first class research university. We have some alumni who’ve made lots of money, but there aren’t enough of them to fill in the gap in state funds even if they were willing to make huge donations. I agree, at least from a financial point of view, it really isn’t possible unless there were serious changes in the state’s priorities.

      I should say that I do think the state should invest heavily in our universities. I just don’t think it’s likely to happen.

      Even if we imagine a future where state priorities have changed, the dysfunction at SIU would probably prevent a “high road” approach. If you read some of the comments on the Deo Volente blog, you’ll see that some of the faculty scoff at the idea that a university should be an economic engine (to his credit, I haven’t seen anything like that coming from the blog’s main author, it’s just been in the comments, and fairly infrequently). I’ve also seen the term “parochial” used in comments on Deo Volente to describe people in the area who refer to SIU as “our” university.

      Of course I don’t know who writes these comments. Most of them are written anonymously (for good reason), so there’s no way to tell. I’m guessing most of them come from faculty in the social sciences and humanities. Research leading to patents and economic development is most likely to come from engineering and the hard sciences.

      I don’t want to lay all the blame for SIU’s dysfunction at the faculty’s door. There are some obvious problems with administration too. Administrative bloat is an obvious one. Instability in leadership is another. Administrators who want to push “big plans” so they can get a bullet point on a resume, maybe leading to a new job at a better university, is a third example.

      Back when SIU was young it might have been possible to choose a different path. I can’t say for sure – I wasn’t around then – but a lot of people seem to think SIU was once doing much better and then somehow lost its way. I hear different explanations, but the 1973/74 faculty purge comes up a lot.

      I’ll point out one more thing. We have had some economic spin off from SIU. The former Center for Comprehensive Services (now Neuro-Restorative Rehab) was started by folks from the university, if I’m not mistaken. I can’t say for sure, but I think the Brehm Prep school for kids with learning disabilities also falls into that category. It’s too bad we don’t see more business development coming out of SIU. It will never be another UIUC, but it can do better than it is now.

      The Carbondale Observer

      August 23, 2011 at 11:54 pm

  7. This is a very interesting discussion; I think the C.O. (who does need a pseudonym, though by giving us some details about his/her past digs and which meeting s/he’s attending, s/he may be lowering the veil a little bit) is making a strong contrarian argument about density not being all bad all the time.

    A couple of SIUC comments–especially since the blog I lead (deo volente: http://siucfaculty.blogspot.com) has gotten mentioned. First, while I think there is plenty of administrative bloat at SIUC, it’s not in the ranks of the civil service employees per se; this unionized group has seen its numbers go down precipitously in the last few years. What we’re getting more of are “professional non-faculty” folks–a designation which covers lots of positions, some valuable, some less so, most reporting to administrators rather than directly serving academic departments. This is a nit-picky distinction, but of course it makes a big difference to the people involved. And of course we’re getting more construction, which produces lots of short-term jobs but often dubious long-term benefits (save perhaps to the football and basketball programs).

    Walter Wendler, love him or hate him, did have a vision for SIUC, which was precisely what the C.O. said it was, to become the second best R1 university in Illinois. He thought this would generate lots of grant money, which was viewed not as a mere means for facilitating faculty research (buying equipment, funding RAs, etc.) but as an end in itself (particularly in the overhead money the administration can spend as it wishes). It’s this notion that the university is a (very inefficient) sort of business that exists to generate grant overhead funds that many faculty find distasteful (perhaps mainly we humanists who lack major grant opportunities).

    As a humanities type, I don’t frankly understand the R1 business spin-off model very well. But it seems to me that there are problems with the university spinning off business parks. First of all, that obviously isn’t part of the traditional understanding of what universities are for (teaching and research). Second, this process can be viewed as something of a scam. Why should taxpayers fund a university’s researchers who then earn patents that the university owns, only to then profit from them itself? Sometimes those patents are in the medical field, so the taxpayers pay for the research to develop new drugs and then pay again, via Medicare or Medicaid, to purchase the drugs. I suppose, as an old-fashioned humanist (I’m even a classicist), I’m troubled when universities start to act more commercial enterprises (by calling upon faculty and others to be entrepreneurial) or into the entertainment business (athletics). At the very least, one ought to recognize that for a university of our status and with our location neither business venture is certain to succeed, and that getting either started would require/has required a substantial subsidy from the traditional part of the university “business”–academics.

    Of course the city of Carbondale and its residents would benefit economically from spin-off businesses and the sports entertainment business tied to the university. But even purely from an economic standpoint it will largely be education that pays the bills at the university, and we get too distracted by other things education will continue to suffer.

    David Johnson

    August 26, 2011 at 8:03 pm

  8. Yikes–sorry for the massive link. Serves me right for trying to put in a plug for my blog (my attempt to insert a link to it via html went haywire). The C.O. is welcome to remove the comment and I’ll repost it without the link.

    David Johnson

    August 26, 2011 at 8:05 pm

  9. David Johnson: Good comment. No problem with the long link. I updated the comment and took that out. Unfortunately, I’m not too good at html. Instead of re-inserting the link, I just added the web address. WordPress automatically made it a link. By the way, I keep forgetting to update my blogroll. I’ve done that now and added Deo Volente and the Unions United blog.

    On Wendler, I think he had a hard time in part because he didn’t fit with the culture of the city and university. He came here from Texas, and down there it’s probably a fine thing for a university chancellor to march in anti-choice rallies. Here, that kind of thing rubs people the wrong way. Another problem was that he was applying for jobs at other universities almost from the day he got here. It’s hard to get behind an ambitious plan when the guy with the vision might not be here next year.

    But, as you say, Wendler did have a vision for SIU. If he’d been chancellor when the state treasury was overflowing, and if he’d done his anti-choice activism somewhere else (maybe St. Louis), he’d probably be second only to Delyte Morris in the SIU hall of fame. I read his blog from time to time and I enjoy it, although I don’t always agree with him.

    You also mention the issue of taxpayers funding research which is then patented and generates profits for business. It seems kind of unfair at first glance. The risky investment in research is socialized and the profits from successful research are privatized. But that’s the way we do it. Advances in a number of fields (aviation, computers and electronics, medicine, etc.) are subsidized by government, frequently through defense expenditures, and the profits go to private business. It violates free market ideology, but no one really believes in that anyway except for a handful of libertarian fanatics.

    I can see why taxpayers would be reluctant to subsidize this stuff. Pharmaceutical research is a great example. We subsidize the research, then pharmaceutical companies get the patents and we have to pay high drug prices until the patents expire. Unfair. But I don’t see how else we’d fund research. I’d say we’d be better off keeping the funding model and reforming the patent system, but that’s really a federal issue.

    It’s probably a little late for a pseudonym. I’m leaning toward putting my name somewhere on the blog in the reasonably near future (in the next few months). I really like the anonymity – it’s fun being a mystery blogger – but it’s also limiting in some ways. I could still change my mind, but I’m 90% certain I’ll put my name on here eventually.

    The Carbondale Observer

    August 26, 2011 at 11:47 pm

  10. I’m just wondering… if you don’t build apartments (or CVS store) to infill the old, small, trashed houses in Carbondale, how can you improve the neighborhoods? In the boom times, a few years back, there was a business created to buy, fix-up and flip, single family homes on the west side. I assume that the flipping business model is dead, like the rest of the country? Who is going to fix up those houses, make them big enough, make them attractive enough, for there to be a demand?

    Interesting how a company that is seen as one of the worst in town, is driving, what is likely the future. Is there a single landlord in Carbondale that isn’t seen as scumbags by the voices of Carbondale?

    A simple review of the MLS in Carbondale vs Carterville (or just outside of Carbondale city limits) is interesting. You are headed toward 50% bigger house, new(ish), for the same money in Carterville. People like bigger, new houses. It just isn’t that far.

    Some advice – unless you are immune from retribution, keep yourself anonymous. Think about it hard, then think again. Kind of like putting up yard signs for politicians, they are bad for business.

    PtG

    August 27, 2011 at 3:05 pm


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