Northwest Neighborhood Meeting
I attended the northwest neighborhood meeting at Hickory Lodge on Monday night. I was surprised at the attendance. I’d say at least fifty people and maybe a few more crammed into the small front room to ask newly appointed city manager Kevin Baity questions about the sale of the old National Guard armory at Oakland and Sycamore.
I was less hopeful when I heard the comments and suggestions for future uses. Few people in the audience seemed to understand our zoning laws and what is and is not permitted in the various districts. Most of the comments focused on what people didn’t want the property used for. The few comments offering ideas on what might be acceptable were oriented toward community or non-profit uses, which would be desirable, but which might not be practical.
I was most surprised at the reaction to one gentleman’s comments. I didn’t catch his name, but the man gave a short speech detailing what he sees as the decline of the northwest neighborhood and laying at least part of the blame on our overly restrictive zoning laws. The man said he considers Chicago a great example of how to handle mixed uses in a neighborhood and pointed out that in Chicago $500,000 dollar homes stand a short walk from coffee shops, retail stores, and even taverns. He concluded with a call to let the free market decide what uses belong where. His speech was met with a groan from those in attendance.
I will write a post about this in the future, but for now I want to point out one thing. If the Armory is sold to an individual or a for-profit company, we will have to make it possible for that person or company to make money from the property. If we don’t, it will gradually fall into disrepair and eventually it will have to be torn down. We don’t have to like that fact, but we have to accept that it is a fact.
It’s possible that the armory won’t be sold to an individual or a for-profit company. Maybe the city will buy it and either keep it for its own use or transfer it to a community group. Maybe some community group will buy the armory itself. It’s even possible that an individual will buy the property and donate it – maybe to a community group or the Park District – and it will be put to some non-commercial use. If so, great.
If not, we need to start thinking about best and worst case scenarios for a commercial use, and about what we’re willing to tolerate. I can tell you the worst case scenario. It isn’t that someone will use the armory for something the community doesn’t like. It’s that it will go unused and eventually will be torn down.
I’ll tell you what I think. I’ve already mentioned that the best idea I’ve heard is for Carbondale Main Street to get the property (probably through a purchase by the city) and use it as a year-round farmer’s market. Someone at the meeting suggested that the property be used as an arts center. That might also be a good use, although we already have the Varsity Center for the Arts.
But if the purchaser wants to use it for commercial purposes, I’d be agreeable. I wouldn’t want to see it used for any purpose that puts the health or safety of the neighborhood at risk. That would rule out the chemical plant that so many at the meeting seemed to fear (and which, I’ll add, would never ever happen, not in a million years). I’d accept offices. I’d accept a retail store, although I think it’s a poor location for that use. I’d accept an entertainment venue or nightclub.
I urge residents of the city to consider what they’d accept if the property is sold for commercial use.
Although there was no consensus on how the armory should be used, there was one interesting outcome of the meeting. Some in attendance formed a committee to meet again with the goal of organizing a stable neighborhood association similar to the Arbor District. I think this is a great development and I hope it succeeds. I may write a longer post on this topic in the future.
Comments are welcome.