The Carbondale Observer

News and commentary about Carbondale, Illinois and SIUC

Northwest Neighborhood Meeting

with 6 comments

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.


Written by The Carbondale Observer

January 17, 2012 at 7:45 am

6 Responses

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  1. It was a terrific meeting last night, though I think I counted over 70 people. It was hard to determine since people were tucked into every doorway and hall in the building. Nonetheless, for a meeting with only three days advance notice, it was a hopeful sign that the Great Northwest is stirring.

    I also heard Ed Van Awken commenting on the mixed use in Chicago, but I thought the comment missed the point. Carbondale is a small college town, not a metropolis of millions of people, and not in the least comparable. And I’m sure that Van Awken would not like to revisit exactly how the corrupt zoning patterns in Chicago have done as much harm as good.

    Having said that, I agree that Carbondale needs more, not less, density. It needs more, not less, mixed use. Only with walkable, comfortable, convenient neighborhoods can our town hope to compete for business and residents.

    But we should start with a realistic view of the nature of our town. And its not Chicago.

    D. Gorton

    January 17, 2012 at 10:13 am

    • D. – Good comment, and we’re in near-total agreement. I agree that Carbondale needs more density and more mixed use. And you’re definitely right that Carbondale isn’t Chicago. Carbondale isn’t even Champaign. And that’s an important point.

      At last night’s meeting I heard several people voice the paranoid fantasy that a chemical plant might be built on the old armory lot. I found myself wondering where these people think they live. This isn’t Chicago or St. Louis. No one is going to build a chemical plant here. No one is going to build any factory of any kind here.

      So I think the comparison to larger cities works both ways. It’s true that we will never have the extreme density that Chicago has. Even fairly large cities like Denver and St. Louis lack that level of density. But we also aren’t going to have the industrial development that requires such a strict segregation of uses in our zoning code.

      Maybe I misunderstood him, but that’s what I thought Mr. Van Awken was getting at with his comment about mixed use in Chicago. I took him to mean that we should allow other uses besides residential in at least some of our currently strictly residential neighborhoods. And I think we agree on that.

      But the thing that really shocked me about the audience reaction was the groan at the term “free market.” I just didn’t know there was such hostility to private business in this town. I knew the overwhelming majority of people in Carbondale make their living from state employment, but I just took it for granted that folks thought it would be good for Carbondale to have private business as well as state institutions.

      That hostility toward the market economy really left me concerned for Carbondale’s future. I haven’t mentioned this on the blog before, but I’m a liberal Democrat. I believe in appropriate regulation and I don’t think markets can solve all our problems. I’ve always thought Carbondale was a liberal Democratic town. But the overwhelming hostility toward the market economy left me wondering if I’m right about that. Listening to the groans at last night’s meeting, it felt more like Cuba.

      The Carbondale Observer

      January 17, 2012 at 10:17 pm

    • CO-

      There may be a lot of specific history behind that specific groan. And its not Cuba.


      January 18, 2012 at 10:07 am

      • Anon – could be. Or it could be the way it seemed to me – a general hostility to markets. I did witness another participant sarcastically refer to one comment as “capitalism, ra ra,” which I considered hostile and disrespectful given the sneering tone. But I hope I’m wrong.

        The Carbondale Observer

        January 18, 2012 at 2:22 pm

  2. C. Observer,
    I noticed the hostile and disrespectful tone from some of the participants, also. I thought about it a bit when I got home and feel like some of those residents want their quiet neighborhoods back. Mention was made of bright lighting, heavier traffic and street parking that has come along with businesses and how that may affect their property values.

    I just don’t see how on earth the “Oakland Repair Shop” warehouse or the Armory can be strictly R-1. If we and neighbors insist on a strict interpretation those buildings will go downhill becoming a crime magnet until they are torn down. I’m really sick or seeing more empty buildings. I think D. said other armory buildings have found a new use…we just need to be open to ideas and be a bit flexible.

    R. Parkinson

    January 18, 2012 at 4:54 pm

    • R. Parkinson – I agree with you. More flexibility will keep buildings in use. And I’m sympathetic with folks who want quiet neighborhoods. Who can blame them? That said, I think any community our size should have a variety of neighborhoods to choose from. After all, not everyone wants to live in a quiet neighborhood. Some people like a little more excitement – and not just students.

      Ideally, some neighborhoods should be quiet and mostly single-family residential, maybe with a few apartments so retirees who want to downsize can sell their homes and remain in their neighborhoods. Other neighborhoods ought to be mixed – in terms of income, family type, and use.

      One thing from the meeting I thought a little odd: the person who kept returning to light levels. I live on the northwest side and in the past I’ve lived on the southwest and southeast sides, and I’ve done more than a little walking at night. My impression is that Carbondale is very dark. At most we have streetlights on high poles at intersections, and sometimes not even that. The interiors of blocks are very dark, and sometimes a little scary. I think Carbondale would benefit from more light, not less.

      Of course, I’d like to see streetlights built to the pedestrian scale – lower to the ground and placed with the goal of lighting sidewalks. The streetlights we have at our intersections are built for cars. They’re elevated on high utility poles and placed with the goal of lighting the street. I’m not saying we should get rid of those, but I do think we’d benefit from pedestrian scaled lighting.

      Maybe the person who kept returning to light issues had some specific set of lights very near her house. If she lives near the hospital, it’s possible the hospital’s lights (which are also on high poles and built for cars) are causing a problem. In that case, I’m sympathetic.

      Thanks for the comment!

      The Carbondale Observer

      January 18, 2012 at 6:44 pm

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