C-Street Historic District Revitalization
Effort Emphasizes Economic Development, Sustainability, and Brownfield Redevelopment
By Olivia L. Hough
It was the arrival of the Frisco railroad in 1870 that signaled the origin of Commercial Street as the center of downtown for the new city of North Springfield, Missouri. Commercial Street (C-Street) is a six-block lineal local and National Registered Historic District. Rich history, an impressive inventory of historic buildings, the longest pedestrian footbridge in the country, and a culture of diverse people have always resulted in a vibe that is completely its own.
Once the commercial center for the City of North Springfield, housing the first passenger and freight depots before the communities merged, it was a vibrant force until the late 1970s. But its railroad heritage and colorful origins couldn't save the district from urban flight and sprawl. A concentration of homeless services led to the perception of the area as unsafe. Blighted from 20 years of disinvestment, many former gas stations, and its location next to railroad operations, the district became a string of vacant storefronts.
In 2004 the Vision 20/20 Comprehensive Plan was adopted, and community groups worked to create a Strategic Five-Year Action Plan focusing on categories that included affordable housing, Center City, cultural planning, education, growth and development, regional planning, transportation, and water quality. Citizens said they wanted to "extend the emphasis given downtown Springfield over the last five years to the Commercial Street area."
A new chapter for C-Street began, building on the Vision 20/20 Plan by continuing the community-based planning approach. City staff began engaging with stakeholders to create a socially inclusive economic revitalization plan for the district. The result was the "Commercial Street Historic District Strategy for Success," adopted by city council in February 2006 and calling for live music and entertainment as a catalyst for revitalization and economic focus with an overall vision for eclectic mixed-use.
The strategy outlines the vision, recommendations for management, responsible hospitality, transportation, and funding. A key element was the need to establish financing tools for infrastructure improvements, business incentives, and management. Keys to success were developed from personal interviews with influential parties in other successful districts. Common elements included safety and security, recruiting experienced business owners, commitment from the local government, and buy-in from stakeholders. With the coordinated efforts of state and federal partners — including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — and the grassroots efforts of citizens engaged in planning, C-Street is restoring investor confidence, establishing redevelopment momentum, and acquiring tools to bring to life its vision for the future.
The Community's Vision
Early in the process, planning department staff began discussions about a Commercial Street revitalization plan with city management, police, the Commercial Club organization (the local nonprofit representing C-Street), business owners, and community leaders.
All of the parties, together with C-Street residents, merchants, property owners, and social service agencies, were invited to participate in a visioning workshop that resulted in the following vision for the district:
The future Commercial Street District will be a safe and inviting mixed use area with live music, restaurants, office, and retail, while providing a quality environment for residential living, both in the district and the surrounding neighborhoods. It will be built on the current regional market opportunities while drawing on historic elements of the past to play a unique role in the growing regional economy. It will appeal to a diverse customer base and be "everybody's neighborhood" as envisioned for Center City in Vision 20/20 providing a memorable experience for all.
The district will be unique and creative as well as progressive while adhering to its authentic historic roots. It will be beautifully landscaped with trees and plants creating vibrant public space which is inviting for outdoor dining. Social services agencies and their clients will be integrated into the fabric of the street and provide a positive contribution to the economy. There will be strong physical and visual connections to downtown, Jordan Valley Park, and the rest of the community.
This vision statement helped spur fresh enthusiasm for the district, giving comfort to investors that the community embraces redevelopment and that it has a specific vision that city leaders have adopted. By integrating the sentiments of the different stakeholders into the vision, traditionally competing interests have reached consensus. The vision statement guided improvements, including the addition of live music to existing businesses and special events, and continues to be the foundation of auxiliary strategic planning.
Stakeholders Key to Success
The recipe for success for any plan begins with buy-in from stakeholders. City planners met one-on-one with influential stakeholders; conducted opinion surveys; met with surrounding neighborhoods, universities, social service agencies, and the Commercial Club; and invited them all to participate in a visioning workshop to determine what they wanted for their district's future. While the inclusion of the many partners added complexity and at times conflict, it also yielded many assets, such as an abundance and variety of ideas that represent the eclectic persona of the district.
A target merchandising mix was outlined using examples from other successful entertainment districts throughout the country as well as the recommendation of the Responsible Hospitality Institute (RHI). The lineal style of the district and the placement of existing residential lofts led to the creation of three natural sub-districts, with higher-intensity land uses located on both ends of the district and lower-intensity in the middle near loft residents. A concept map was developed to assist businesses and developers with assessing their plans and location with the goals of the district. During this time the city planning department learned of RHI and engaged the services of President Jim Peters to conduct a Hospitality Zone Assessment. RHI confirmed that entertainment could be an economic stimulus and made recommendations for the creation of the sub districts and a special liquor ordinance (discussed in the Outcomes section below), and facilitated the creation of a Hospitality Resource Panel (HRP) to continue regular communication between stakeholder groups.
Strategy in Action
Now more than two years later, how effective has the strategy been in achieving the goals of bringing economic focus and reinvestment? Some see evidence of a transformation, while others still see much that needs to be done. There has been a great deal of progress, but there is still ample opportunity for property investment, new business development, and the infrastructure improvements and coordinated marketing that have been planned.
The strategy has been a foundation and a guide. The media immediately latched on to the underdog story, bringing attention and free marketing to the district. Investor interest peaked during the two years the strategy was under development, probably a result of the extensive engagement that created a buzz in the community. Many vacant buildings were purchased and saved from complete destruction. The loft market has led the way as trendy one-of-a-kind spaces attract artists, musicians, writers, young professionals, and boomers moving in to be part of the community and the redevelopment effort. State and federal historic tax credits are the leading incentive for building restoration to date. In Missouri, projects can receive a 25 percent credit on project cost for qualified structures, making it feasible to save buildings that might otherwise be lost. Sixteen new businesses opened last year including a coffee house, photography and art studios, a restaurant, live music venue, and several professional services. The C-Street Jam, an annual live music event held each year, promotes local artists and is a spin-off of local musicians voluntarily setting up during the farmers market and other regular events.
This planning effort has resulted in many positive outcomes including the following:
A Tax Increment Financing District (TIF) was established in April 2008 to fund future infrastructure improvements. Parking, streetscapes, gateways, transportation improvements, and landscaping are major components of the TIF Redevelopment Plan. Annual public meetings with stakeholders will assist in prioritizing specific projects over the 23-year life of the TIF.
The process has been initiated for creation of a Community Improvement District (CID) to provide sustained coordinated management and maintenance. Research and personal interviews with other successful entertainment districts revealed that strong management was one of the most fundamental needs of a district. The city has funded interim management coordinated by the Urban Districts Alliance that will be sustained through this CID.
Streetscapes have been completed for three blocks in the heart of the district, with plans for another block this summer and the remainder to be completed in future years as funding becomes available. The streetscapes promote a walkable and vibrant atmosphere, with wider sidewalks, decorative streetlights, low maintenance landscaping, and bike racks.
A new liquor license ordinance enacted specifically for the district eliminates the 200-foot distance requirement between bars, mandatory for all other areas in the city. The distance requirement presented a barrier to achieving the desired development density and did not protect the community from negative impacts. Under the new ordinance additional criteria helps ensure compatibility with the strategy, allows for community input, and focuses on mitigating potential impacts by requiring the adoption of responsible hospitality best practices, a security plan, and an annual review for license renewal.
Brownfields Incentives and Sustainability
As a result of the city's commitment to Commercial Street and the clear environmental need, the district also became a target redevelopment area for the city's brownfields program. Brownfields funding has helped to characterize and assess redevelopment properties, preparing them for cleanup and restoration. Grants to perform assessments and cleanup planning are paired with a new Revolving Loan Program to finance cleanup for low to no interest on private property. In a joint venture, residents and businesses have incorporated sustainable design, green development, and recycling into the fabric of their community. A "Green Resolution" adopted in November 2006 by the Commercial Club makes an official grassroots commitment to protect, restore, and sustain, exemplifying the goals of the brownfields program and EPA.
Askinosie Chocolate is a fantastic example of the many new businesses that have adopted green practices. An artisanal, bean-to-bar chocolate manufacturer, they profit-share with the cocoa bean farmers while the factory itself uses green production and management techniques. The high-quality chocolate produced was featured on NBC's "Today Show" on June 12, 2008.
The Commercial Club community building is under renovation and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) items are being considered in the design and construction. A former brownfield will soon be home to a potentially LEED-certified day spa, an expansion of the Professional Massage Training Center, while another, a historic gas station, will be redeveloped as a microbrewery. Environmental assessments are being performed on additional properties that will put them on the road to sustainable reuse.
At the 2008 National Brownfields Conference, the Environmental Protection Agency's Region 7 office presented the City of Springfield's brownfields program with an award for "The Sustainable Redevelopment of Communities." The award recognized Springfield for its efforts to foster sustainability, particularly efforts to redevelop Commercial Street into a sustainable, mixed-use destination.
Change Is on the Horizon
The foundation has been set for long term success for C-Street. With a vision, a plan, and the tools that support it in place, it is ready for a new level of progress. Next steps will concentrate on hiring a full-time manager to champion the redevelopment effort and continue attracting businesses that fit with the concept. The national trends of higher gas prices, housing costs, and green development are already having a previously unexpected impact. Although too new to tell what the effects will be, demand for lofts has spiked as residents want to live closer to work, services, and entertainment, with the option of walking, biking, or riding the bus. A new level of environmental consciousness seems to go hand-in-hand with the vision, preservation efforts and community commitment to sustainability. A challenge, though, is achieving LEED certification and also meeting requirements to receive historic tax credits.
An EPA Sustainability Pilot project, currently under review for final selection in Washington, D.C., will provide consulting services to the district to help navigate these challenges and make recommendations for achieving the highest level of sustainability possible on coordinated district projects as well as specific properties. As C-Street continues to develop and to attract more projects and economic development enthusiasts, this district will continue to be one to watch.
Olivia Hough is the brownfields coordinator for the City of Springfield, Missouri, in the Department of Planning and Development where she has worked as a city planner since 2001. She has a B.S. in Community and Regional Planning from Missouri State University. Hough is a member of the American Planning Association and APA's Missouri Chapter.
Images: Top — C-Street Historic District Springfield, Missouri. Photo by Nathaniel Huggins. Middle — Jefferson Avenue Footbridge, a National Registered Historic Site. Photo by Bruce Murell. Bottom — First Friday Pet Night on C-Street. Photo by Olivia Hough.