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Cynthia Reeves | SBJ

A Conversation With ... Susan Istenes

Director of Planning and Development, City of Springfield

Posted online

We previously reported on developers experiencing faster project approval in the city of Republic, say, compared to Springfield. Since taking this role in February, have you made improvements, or do you have plans to update city processes?
One of the things that really impresses me that the city does, and I know it’s relatively new, is what’s called a predevelopment meeting. It happens once a week and is an internal staff review meeting. The potential applicant can provide very little information, but just get some quick feedback from city staff as to what some of the potential issues might be with their project. It could be something as small as an idea in a location or something as big as a serious project that somebody is getting ready to submit to the city for approval. There’s no cost to it. That is something I haven’t seen anywhere I’ve worked in terms of it being free and fast. The other thing that we are working on is Forward SGF, which is the city’s comprehensive plan update. Along with that comes updates to city zoning codes and zoning maps. One of the challenges Springfield has had is that the zoning code has not been holistically reviewed. One of the goals in the comprehensive plan is to streamline development review processes. Part of what makes applying codes challenging over time is what we call piecemeal changes. They can make interpreting or applying the code difficult if they result in conflicts in the code. Some of the speed of development review has to do with communication and codes that are consistent. The staff that I work with want to see people succeed. They want them to bring good projects to the city of Springfield.

What revisions are coming to the city’s zoning code?
There will be enhanced flexibility per our comprehensive plan to allow more of a variety of land uses in different areas of the city as opposed to being more narrowly focused. For example, residential zoning districts – you will see more of allowing a variety of residential land use types, such as multifamily and single family more closely located geographically. Or you may see a mix of uses such as multifamily and office in the same building. Flexibility in terms of the location and what is allowed to go in a zoning district is going to be greatly enhanced.

Is that blending of commercial and residential a growing trend?
One of the things that’s coming out of Forward SGF – and this might be a little bit idealistic but it’s a goal – is to make housing and amenities, in terms of neighborhood commercial and recreational type of land uses, all accessible within a 15-minute walk of where you live. It is a trend, but it’s not a brand-new trend in planning. It is very attractive to a certain group of people. It has a tendency to reduce traffic congestion, bring people out into the streets, into the neighborhood, making it easier to get to know your neighbors, to socialize and to have everything very conveniently located.

Your department will be in charge of maintaining the Forward SGF plan. What are other changes you’re working on and when will those changes start?
Our goal is to have that adopted this fall. This is 20 years in the making. Normally, you like to see your comprehensive plans updated or at least looked at every five years. So, 20 years is a long time. One of the biggest changes to come about as a result of that will be code-related changes as they relate to appearance, both in landscaping and architectural materials design of the building. So, when you come down a main street in Springfield, the buildings have a nice appearance. Springfield is an older city so there’s a lot of older buildings and older sites. Certain areas of the city are going to have design characteristics to help identify both neighborhoods and the entrance to the city. We want people to know they are in Springfield. That’s a big thing we’re going to be working on because that’s different. We do have landscape buffering requirements in the code now, but they likely would be enhanced. And then we do have some design considerations as well, but they also would be enhanced. The thing about Forward SGF is that it’s the public’s plan. That was one of the main things that came out of public input was the appearance of the city. Springfield is ugly. That’s what I understand the planners heard. We picked up the comprehensive plan this spring and we have sent comments back to our consultant multiple times. What is going to be presented on Thursday, July 21, at Hammons Field is the reveal. It should be very close to the final document.

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