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The city of Springfield has released a draft of its comprehensive plan for the next 20 years. Titled Forward SGF, the 250-page document outlines a wide-ranging vision for the city. This is the first installment in a series of reports on the 10 main goals of Forward SGF.
On the northern edge of the Rountree neighborhood sits a small collection of eateries, pubs and retail outlets. Locals refer to that area simply as Pickwick and Cherry, for the names of two roads, Pickwick Avenue and Cherry Street, that converge near the center of the cluster.
Conversations in the city frequently allude to Pickwick and Cherry, which is seen as a model of a neighborhood commercial hub, an idea city officials hope to replicate elsewhere through the Queen City’s 20-year master plan, Forward SGF.
In the Rountree hub, residents and visitors to the neighborhood might enjoy a pie at Imo’s Pizza, established in the neighborhood in 1998. Or they can grab a sandwich at Tea Bar & Bites, which opened in 2003.
Among the more recent offerings are Tie & Timber Beer Co., which opened in 2018, and Fleur Floral Studio, which entered last year.
Visitors to the hub also may buy tacos or paint pottery. There is even a neighborhood market with fresh milk, produce and ice cream.
A few miles north, in the Woodland Heights neighborhood, there is no Pickwick and Cherry vibe, but there are plenty of ideas.
Becky Volz, president of the Woodland Heights Neighborhood Association, sees closed commercial buildings in her district and thinks of the possibilities for each.
An example is an old storefront at 916 W. Atlantic St. that she thinks would be perfect for a combination bookstore and coffee shop. The neighborhood has a resident, Chance Parish, who would make the perfect proprietor. Some neighbors have playfully started speaking of the building that way – Chance’s Books.
Ideas – one might even say dreams – are at the core of Forward SGF’s initiative to establish neighborhood hubs in other parts of the city.
Randall Whitman, the city’s principal planner, said it would be a mistake to think that one successful model in a specific neighborhood could or should be rubber-stamped into every neighborhood.
Some neighborhoods are right for hubs and some are not, according to Whitman, and each has different socioeconomic and even physical characteristics. The city defines a neighborhood hub as a place for people to gather.
“I don’t think it’s intended to replace your mainstream grocery stores, Walmart, Dollar General, Target or any of those,” Whitman said. “I don’t think it’s realistic to have a hub to supply everyone’s needs at an affordable price.”
Hubs will not eliminate food deserts or solve hunger or homelessness, he said.
“It does provide an opportunity for people to say, ‘That’s my local entertainment zone,’” he said. “They can go there and drink a cup of coffee. They walk to get there, and they interact with people and get some exercise – that goes to health and well-being.”
Neighbors who gather tend to watch over one another, for more safety and security.
“We can’t go back in time to when we had corner grocery stores and people had to walk to get their goods,” he said. “Those neighborhood hubs are not anchored in the idea it’s going to solve those problems, but they can take the edge off it.”
An example might be a neighborhood garden whose produce is sold at a farmers market. That sort of thing could very well help fill a gap in local nutrition sources, he said.
Volz said all of Springfield’s 23 registered neighborhoods are distinctive, and Rountree would be hard to duplicate.
“We’re going to have to be creative and design it to fit the neighborhood and the culture of the neighborhood,” she said.
In Woodland Heights, where Volz said many residents have lower income levels, duplicating the offerings of a wealthier neighborhood would not make sense.
“I wouldn’t want to have more breweries. We don’t want more bars for alcoholics that roam the streets,” she said. “A coffee shop, a little deli, those types of things? Yep, we can do that.”
One of Volz’ favorite daydreams for her neighborhood is to have a small food store that can offer cooking classes for children.
“A lot of kids who live in the neighborhood get breakfast and lunch at school and then don’t get food again until they go back for breakfast the next day at school,” she said.
Imagine, though, these children spending time productively after school as they learn to make mac and cheese, then taking home ingredients to replicate the dish for their family. A cooperative effort of social service agencies and a willing business owner could make that kind of vision a reality.
Volz said parts of historic neighborhoods like hers can be built up and serve as an asset to the city.
“These are definitely parts of the city to celebrate and be really proud of,” she said. “We’re going to help build those neighborhoods up a little bit.”
One aspect of Volz’s neighborhood that is less common in Rountree is the prevalence of people who are homeless.
“Just because there are people on the street who look like they’ve missed a meal or two doesn’t mean they’re dangerous,” she said. “They’re just trying to find the next place to sit down.”
Forward SGF plan
The draft of the city’s comprehensive plan calls for a continued process of proactive neighborhood planning.
So far, four neighborhoods have official plans: West Central, Midtown, Rountree and Phelps Grove, according to the Forward SGF document.
“Ideally, a neighborhood plan should be developed for all neighborhood associations,” the document states. “The goal of these plans is to create strategies unique to their neighborhood geography, with the aim of maintaining or improving older center-city neighborhoods and creating lasting value in new or established neighborhoods.”
The plan calls on the city to prioritize the development of plans in disinvested and challenged neighborhoods first before targeting stable neighborhoods in the city’s periphery.
A plan should consider locations of neighborhood value to target for protection and preservation, and it should also look for areas that create friction with residents, the document says. Neighborhoods should keep their eye on possible redevelopment areas where housing and services can be expanded.
Whitman said the city has envisioned hubs in areas like Phelps Grove, with a possible hub by the Springfield Art Museum.
“The art museum’s talked about expanding how it engages with neighborhoods and the community,” he said. “It could offer a coffee shop or eatery, art classes. There is no one solution guaranteed to work everywhere. The plan is aimed at trying to improve older neighborhoods and give them character and purpose – a chance to shine and rise above the struggle.”
In a July interview, Susan Istenes, the city’s director of planning and development, acknowledged the idea may be idealistic, but a goal is to make housing and amenities accessible within a 15-minute walk.
“It is a trend, but it’s not a brand-new trend in planning. 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.”
Volz said she would like to see that idea extend beyond restaurants and retail to include health providers for neighbors to easily access.
To bring neighborhood commercial hubs into being, Whitman said the city’s Planning and Development Department could provide some assistance in the form of neighborhood planning to help facilitate regulatory changes and infrastructure improvements.
“As far as small-business support goes, the city’s Economic Vitality Department does offer loan support for qualifying businesses, which could include low-intensity neighborhood-scale businesses,” he added. “Neighborhood engagement and planning for the rise of such neighborhood hubs is critical for this initiative to become a reality.”
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