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New Plans For Springfield's Y-Block? Universities And City Have Ideas

Dirty Dozen Brass Band, from New Orleans, performs on the Y-Block in downtown Springfield, July 11, 2019.
Daisy Contreras
NPR Illinois
Dirty Dozen Brass Band, from New Orleans, performs on the Y-Block in downtown Springfield, July 11, 2019.

Each week this summer, artists and bands have performed on a vacant lot in downtown Springfield, known as the Y-Block. Now, new plans are taking shape for the city-owned land just north of the governor’s mansion. 

Ashley Murray of Springfield brought her toddler, Mia Nicole, out to watch Dirty Dozen Brass Band – a New

Credit Daisy Contreras / NPR Illinois
NPR Illinois
Roger Lewis of Dirty Dozen Brass Band, plays at Springfield's Levitt AMP Concert, July 11, 2019.

Orleans band with a world-wide following. “I loved it—great energy,” she said. 

The band was set up on the south end of the block, where hundreds of people gather for a weekly Levitt AMP Thursday show. The series is funded with a $25,000 matching grant from the Levitt Foundation, along with additional funding from local businesses to make a total working budget of $75,000. 

“This is great for families and friends to get together and just kind of relax, especially after work. You can bring your chairs, [and] bring your family,” Murray said. 

The series has included other world-renowned musical acts, like Merengue band Oro Solido and Ska band The Skatalites. The last performance is scheduled for next week.

Lisa Clemmons Stott is executive director of Downtown Springfield Inc.—the non-profit in charge of bringing the shows to town. She said the series was an opportunity to get people talking about the block in a more positive way and away from the “bickering” that’s surrounded it. Bringing people out, she said, was also another reason. 

“To attract diverse audiences to the block—so to bring neighborhoods together that don’t usually intermingle.”

The block has stood empty since the former YWCA building was torn down in 2017.  Proposals have ranged from a full-block development of apartments, retail space and parking — to a movie theater and restaurants. During his term, former Gov. Bruce Rauner lobbied for an open space with a park, playground and amphitheater. Though that eventually fell through when he lost re-election. 

Two problems have persisted: the lack of agreement and the lack of money. But now consensus is building around another idea for the Y-block.     

“I think people realize the importance of the activated space with the Levitt concert series happening,” Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder said. 

“And everyone for decades wanted a university presence downtown — so that’s what we’re pushing towards to make that happen as much as possible.”

Last week Langfelder filed an ordinance proposing part of the block to remain green space and the other part home to a University of Illinois Springfield downtown campus, including Innovate Springfield, the university’s business incubator.

The ordinance suggests funding would come from two sources — the Discovery Partners Institute led by the University of Illinois system and from the state’s $45 billion capital plan. But just how much money those two will bring to fund a project is still unclear. 

State Sen. Andy Manar, a Democrat from Bunker Hill, said he has always supported university presence. His last suggestion was for Southern Illinois University to establish a satellite law school downtown and increase collaboration with UIS. Ultimately, he said, the final decision falls on the city and university leaders.

“I think that time has come for us to move this forward as much as we can, given the fact that I think we have all the pieces together,” he said. 

Manar said even if this collaboration doesn’t happen on the Y-block, the universities should still look for space downtown. 

A final design is needed to estimate how much money will be needed. Manar said that design and buy-in from university and city officials could help build support among state leaders for capital funding — which other higher-ed institutions are also competing to get. A final plan will be presented to Gov. J.B Pritzker.

Ashley Murray, who has made her trek to the Y-block every Thursday with her daughter Mia Nicole, said while she and others support development on the lot, she would prefer to see a green space where kids can come out and play. 

“So when you come out here and there’s live entertainment, there’s food, there’s people — there’s a sense of community,” she said. 

Clemmons Stott of Downtown Springfield, Inc. said she sees opportunity for all sides to get what they want: the universities could get their proximity to both the capitol and the governor’s mansion, and anything left over can be used as a gathering space. Clemmons Stott points to the Levitt AMP series as one example of what can be done in a section of that space. 

The universities seem to be on-board and open to conversation, with possible financial support coming from different organizations.

At its meeting last week, Southern Illinois University’s Board of Trustees voiced support for a law school campus, potentially in collaboration with UIS, in downtown Springfield. Sangamon County Board Chair Andy Van Meter was there and encouraged SIU's board to act quickly on the opportunity.  

Van Meter said the county’s recently formed Land of Lincoln Economic Development Corporation, a public/private partnership aimed at developing economic growth in both Springfield and Sangamon County, plans to help SIU expand its presence in Springfield with $300,000. 

“Our state legislative delegation and our national, congressional delegations is fully engaged in this planning process and deeply committed to obtaining the funding necessary for its implementation,” Van Meter said at the meeting. 

Meanwhile, UIS Chancellor Susan Koch in a statement called a new building on the Y block a “tremendous” next step for collaboration with the SIU School of Medicine, the city and others. 

The challenge is getting all the parties on the same page: lawmakers, both universities, city leaders, and the community. 

The city council will take up a resolution on plans in the coming weeks. 

Daisy reported on statehouse issues for our Illinois Issues project. She's a Public Affairs Reporting program graduate from the University of Illinois Springfield. She also graduated from the Illinois Institute of Technology, and has an associates degrees from Truman College. Daisy is from Chicago where she attended Lane Tech High School.
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