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Downtown's long history affects its infrastructure

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by Paul Schreiber

SBJ Contributing Writer

Springfield's downtown area is undergoing a gradual transformation, and the addition of new structures and renovation of older buildings makes reviewing the area's existing infrastructure a necessity for the city of Springfield and City Utilities.

The city handles sanitary sewer, storm sewer and street responsibilities while City Utilities manages water, gas and electric concerns.

Bob Schaefer, assistant director of Public Works for the city, said the existing infrastructure is in "serviceable shape." It is not in serious condition, he said, but it needs some work.

"We are doing rehabilitation work of our entire sewer system that is probably spread over about a 10-year period," he said. "Some downtown sewers will be repaired, reconstructed, relined."

Sometimes the challenge is not only assessing the condition of the infrastructure but finding it.

"Because the infrastructure was built so long ago, we don't always have a good handle on exactly where the sewer lines are located," said Mary Lilly Smith, economic development coordinator for the city of Springfield.

She added that when doing "streetscaping projects we often find the stormwater box is located underneath the sidewalk, and so it's not always possible to plant trees where you'd like to plant them."

Other remnants from yesteryear found under Springfield's downtown sidewalks are "parts of the basements of the buildings or old coal chutes," Schaefer said. The chutes once received deliveries of coal used to stoke downtown buildings' furnaces.

The changes slated for Springfield's downtown area, especially the development of Civic Park, make coordination between city officials and managers at City Utilities essential.

"We're in regular meetings with the city and other people to make sure that we're all singing off the same page," said Karl Plumpe, senior manager for economic development for City Utilities.

As Springfield's center city area has developed and changed, it has altered the physical layout of its streets, walkways and alleys.

"The downtown area has evolved in different areas over time. Sometimes what used to be a street becomes an alley," Plumpe said. "Sometimes you've got a lot narrower corridor than you like. What's unique is the differing dimensions that you deal with," he added.

Developing a lighting system that makes downtown user-friendly at night is a primary objective for CU managers. Tall buildings hugging a slim strip of sidewalk can create infrastructure problems where lighting is involved, Plumpe said.

He said pedestrian lights that have been erected in some downtown areas "look nice but they crowd a sidewalk." The result can be a "3- or 4-foot sidewalk and you have to walk around a pole. I won't say it's an obstacle course, but sometimes it almost appears that way," he said.

One potential lighting solution involves anchoring the lights to the buildings themselves. "That would get them off the sidewalk and would still not detract from the appearance of the property," Plumpe said.

According to Plumpe, the ideal is to "accommodate growth and change without being intrusive. You want your utilities to be as invisible as possible," he said. Still, enhancing the infrastructure sometimes requires expansion of right-of-ways or acquiring easements from property owners to locate improvements underground, he added.

Schaefer said Springfield city officials observe how other cities, and even private businesses, handle similar infrastructure problems. He is confident the improvements Springfield is making to its infrastructure will serve as a model to other cities considering their own renovations.

"I think our biggest challenge is making sure that we're providing the lowest cost and highest quality service that we can to our customers," Schaefer added.

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