The Carbondale Observer

News and commentary about Carbondale, Illinois and SIUC

Guest Post: D. Gorton on Zoning and the Future of Carbondale

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I attended the public hearing at the Planning Commission meeting on Wednesday. I was impressed by the large turnout and by the helpful comments made by the people in attendance. One comment — by neighborhood activist D. Gorton — stood out, and I spoke with him after the meeting to ask if he would be willing to have it published as a guest post. He graciously agreed. I thank him for the opportunity to print his remarks, which appear in their entirety below. 

Madame Chairman, members of the Commission, I am grateful for the opportunity to address the issue of the proposed zoning changes.

This is part of a broader effort to revitalize our town, so I would like to offer a brief context for our discussion.

When I first came to Carbondale, I was honored to meet and become friends with Helen Westburg and Randy Nelson. I’m sure there are many people in this audience who remember them. For those of you who do not, Helen Westburg and Randy Nelson lived on Cherry St. Helen was a faculty wife. Randy Nelson was her next door neighbor. Randy had lost his sight in aerial combat in the Pacific Theatre in WW2. Randy went back to college on the GI Bill and attained a PhD in political science. He became a professor at SIU. Most important for me was that Helen, who later became the first and only Woman Mayor of Carbondale, and Randy who became a member of City Council, spurred the enactment of the first zoning code in 1974.

So, my remarks are derived from conversations that I had with Randy and Helen. Any mistakes that I make are mine alone.

The great economic wave that washed over Carbondale after WW2 was in part the returning veterans on the GI Bill. The university exploded with energy and students. The Barrow family of Carbondale and the Brown family, along with many other leaders in the town, were visionaries. They sought out and hired Delyte Morris to take charge of the university. They also established Memorial Hospital and Carbondale Clinic. Think about that for a moment – the great institutions that remain in Carbondale were both molded by these visionaries.

The growth at the university was explosive. As a result it became very lucrative to convert single-family homes to rooming houses and rentals.

By the late 60s and early 70s, the areas near the university were referred to as “student neighborhoods” by the city – dismissing the remaining residents. There was little or no code enforcement and no zoning. The result was practically a war zone with students and remaining residents in deep conflict. In addition, slumlords rose up to consolidate the rental houses. They assembled hundreds of buildings.

In the elections of 1974, Randy Nelson and Helen Westburg, along with the League of Women Voters, pushed for a reform ticket. The reforms, importantly for our discussion tonight, included residential and business zoning.

The zoning changes that they made were recommendations from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as I understand it. It was a “model” plan that largely reflected American’s concerns of the early 1970s: suburbs, tract development, auto congestion.

Helen and Randy both said that over time they became deeply disappointed in the codes they had helped put into place. For example: the housing plats on Cherry St were aligned with the Illinois Central Railroad (N/S), but Cherry St was not perpendicular. As a result, the buildings were too close to the property lines, especially on the sides. If a building was damaged by a fire or tornado, it could not be rebuilt…. It could not be adequately insured…. And it could not be used in an appraisal of the property. In other words, the new zoning actually decreased the accumulated capital of the city in the older neighborhoods.

Moreover, the zoning, as a result of a compromise, went right down the middle of Cherry St. On one side were residents and on the other side were largely rooming houses.

Another issue was the enforcement of the codes. If the city issued tickets, the slumlords often managed to get them dismissed in Court. To this day, as I understand it, there has seldom been a successful prosecution for over-occupancy of a rental in a R-1 residential district.

Eventually the city appeared to have consigned those neighborhoods to the slumlords and consciously moved their efforts to the East side of Carbondale with the development of the Mall, the transfer of all of the schools including Carbondale Community High School, and housing developments.

The strip was treated in a similar manner of “benign neglect.”

Make no mistake, however, the University was still growing and the strip was still vital. That continuing growth masked the underlying problems in the city.

That is the context of 1974: continued growth of the university, continued growth of business, and tremendous pressure on housing to accommodate students.

Tonight, we meet almost 40 years later. What is our context today? How do we proceed in a manner that will not lead to disappointment? I say that because I know everyone in this room, and the Commission, wants the very best for our town.

First of all, growth has stopped. It has stopped at the university. It has stopped in the town. Sales are flat at the mall. In fact, I understand that the company Henry Fisher founded back in the 70s, Home Rentals, did not pay any of their property taxes this year and are now delinquent. A Carbondale institution, Mississippi Flyway, announced last week it was going out of business.

In my opinion the decline will continue. The university will get smaller, perhaps dramatically so. As a result there is little pressure on housing. I understand that hundreds of houses in Carbondale are either marginally occupied by occasional rentals or completely unoccupied.

I want to be clear: I do not think that a downsizing of the university is necessarily a bad thing. If managed properly, with an eye on quality, SIUC will get better students, an enlivened faculty and a robust institution for the future.

While some of the big box stores are doing well, the Mall appears to be struggling. And remember, that sales taxes are the main source of city funds.

What happened? Partly, our town is susceptible to the national trends. A huge economic bubble, caused in part by sub prime mortgages, destroyed the housing market. Manufacturing, which used to be important in the region, along with coal mining, is nearly non-existent. What some people call the “higher education” bubble threatens to permanently affect the university.

The rise of the digital revolution promises to upend whole sectors of our economy, including higher education, while developing whole new industries and new ways of  learning.

Unfortunately, I think we have made a series of poor decisions. The university, instead of driving for quality as envisioned by Delyte Morris, instead conceived itself as the “economic engine” of the region. That meant that their goal was to keep up the enrollment by any means necessary including lower admission standards. Moreover, there was a focus on capital improvements – bricks and mortar – that would create jobs. Incredibly the City of Carbondale voted to give away $1 million dollars a year for 20 years in support of this effort. If we had been following the idea of quality, we would have sponsored a $1 million dollar a year scholarship program for gifted students. But that wasn’t discussed.

We abandoned our older neighborhoods and people left our town to settle elsewhere. Our schools, once the pride of Carbondale, have sagged. The elementary school in particular is not attractive to young families who choose instead to live in other school districts such as Carterville, Giant City or Unity Point.

But, lets look at a nearby town: Marion. Why do they appear to be doing well? Marion capitalized on its assets. It is a freeway/gas station town. Its location on I-57 has been exploited by the City of Marion to build motels, distribution centers, repair shops and manufacturing. They have lax zoning and a go-go attitude to development. They have succeeded brilliantly in their strategy.

But Carbondale is not like Marion. Nor is it like Paducah or Cape Girardeau. All of those cities have built on their unique assets, as must Carbondale.

What do we have that is unique? Carbondale is in the top 3% in Illinois and the top 4% nationally in education levels. Carbondale has a research university. Carbondale has a well-managed medical community and hospitals. We are developing a robust high-speed internet structure connecting our major institutions. We have a major railroad. We are surrounded by beautiful countryside. We have youth and youthful energy. We have a deep and abiding commitment to fairness and racial justice. We are welcoming to gays and gay families. Carbondale is a deeply comfortable place to just be yourself. In fact, the other day I saw a bumper sticker: “Keep Carbondale Weird”. That’s not what I have in mind, but it certainly is part of the uniqueness of the city.

Several years ago, my wife and I decided to rehabilitate houses. It was largely a defensive measure since we were surrounded by slumlords who cared not a bit for the appearance of their properties. What we discovered was beautifully built bungalows from the 1920s with dimensional lumber, strong foundations and graceful lines. Make no mistake about it, many of them are in very rough condition, but they can be restored. They are spread in a wide arc through the neighborhoods near the university across Walnut and Main and on to the neighborhoods of the Northwest.

We learned that there is a wonderful market for these houses. They are near the university and hospital. We also learned that zoning makes a difference to our properties. As I mentioned before, we can not rebuild structures that were  built too close to the property lines in the 1920s. This is a strong disincentive for someone to buy our houses.

We learned that the old neighborhoods, which once boasted small grocery stores and other small businesses, were no longer able to do that under the code adopted in 1974. We learned that auxiliary buildings for rental were not allowed as well: the so called mother-in-law flats. These “mixed uses” are important to understand and discuss. While they are appropriate in some places, clearly they are not in others.

However, it’s in the creation of wise zoning and its fair enforcement that will help cities as unique as Carbondale thrive.

This zoning code and the changes that I have seen do not address the concerns that I have outlined. Nor are they responsive to the times.

Find a way to make office space, housing and amenities available to this highly educated population and let them create the businesses of the future. Allow them to create families and partnerships that will sustain our town. Enable young people and elderly to live comfortably together. Follow our Comprehensive Plan and develop amenities such as bike lanes, walking paths, parks and green spaces. Imagine a more sustainable city.

Bear down on quality and responsive transparent government. Have encouragement for hard driving businesses. Bring out the uniqueness of Carbondale and watch it prosper. It’s within our grasp.

In closing, I again want to thank the Commission for this opportunity. I trust that you are as wise and as committed to the uniqueness of Carbondale as the Barrows, Browns, Nelsons, Westburgs, and the other visionaries who help build this town.

Ed. Note: The preceding was written by D. Gorton of Carbondale, Illinois. 

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Written by The Carbondale Observer

January 25, 2013 at 7:30 am

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