The $5 million boondoggle

Analysis by Norm Winick

The proposed downtown streetscape plan is a travesty that will cost Galesburg taxpayers nearly $5 million. While downtown clearly needs some renewal and renovation, this ill conceived proposal brought forth by an out-of-town architectural firm repeats the mistakes of the past and solves none of the problems of the present.

An equal travesty is that the Galesburg City Council approved spending nearly $1 million of local money with only a few questions in hopes of getting another $4 million more tax money from the state.

The problems downtown can be summarized easily. There is not enough parking in a few key areas and many storefronts are ugly. Some sidewalks are in need of repair and the decorations added in the 1970s are showing their age.

Instead of realizing the obvious, that very few of the retail stores and virtually none of the banks and service firms are open at night, the architects propose spending 1.2 million on decorative lights to replace the ones that were put in 20 years ago. What a waste; the effective high pressure sodium street lights already in place provide more than enough illumination on the streets and sidewalks so that any decorative lights are virtually invisible.

And these new million dollar lights are going to be custom designed with a railroad theme. If we feel obligated to honor the greatest nuisance and hindrance to traffic in the city, we can hang these plaques and pictures of trains on the existing street light poles. It would make more sense to spend that money as a down payment on a long-advocated overpass on E. Main St. so that customers can get to the businesses despite the increasing rail traffic.

The entire plan is designed to bring back a late 1800s feel to the downtown. That's the mistake the planners made when they last fixed up downtown in the 1970s. People don't want to shop somewhere that looks old­­ unless maybe they're buying antiques; they want someplace clean and safe and new. A quick trip to any successful shopping mall or festival marketplace will prove that quickly. The other thing this misguided return to the 1800s does is make all but a handful of the existing buildings out of place. Every one of the banks and all of the large office buildings are much newer than that. The Bondi building, an architectural treasure of its own, was built in the 1930s. Art deco would be a more appropriate style to surround it. The modern bank buildings, anchors on every major corner but one, would look better in a streetscape of contemporary design.

Fixing the sidewalks where needed is indeed a good idea­­ but we sure don't need to replace half of them. Replacing the false brick with concrete is fine. Replace the cracked concrete. And in the parking lots, take out the concrete. Make the parking lots parking lots; they don't need those trees and planters that occupy valuable parking spaces. Pave them flat and reconfigure them for angle parking with narrower aisles and more spaces.

If we want to have a few benches, put them on the sidewalks and let's buy some standard benches­­ not the $2,500 custom ones in this plan.

Each trash can is budgeted for $1,200; there must be a company selling more reasonable ones­­ or we could, maybe, paint the ones we've got.

And we don't need a gateway arch for a quarter of a million dollars. Dixon has one; I've never seen any evidence their city is booming.

There are some things that should be done to downtown­­ some of which are in this plan. Most of the planters should be removed; the sidewalks need to be fixed; better signage would be nice. Put some bright banners on the light poles and change them frequently­­ commemorating upcoming events or tourist sites. That's about it.

What really should be done with most of the $5 million is to give it to the businesses and landlords so that their building facades and windows can be fixed up. Without them, there would be no downtown to redevelop. With ugly buildings, none of the other improvements make any difference.

Pass some ordinances to make downtown more attractive (as the Council needs to do for Henderson St. also.) Get rid of the plywood masquerading as a storefront on S. Seminary St. Prohibit covering windows with kraft paper. Encourage displays in vacant storefronts. Ask everyone to illuminate their front windows until midnight rather than installing those anachronistic lights. Let each store and business retain and amplify its uniqueness; encourage the bright colors and neon that make a shopping area come alive. That's what shopping districts do in the 20th century.

The City Council has once again repeated the mistake they've made many times before. Under the guidance of the Galesburg Downtown Council, they relied on an outside firm to tell them what to do with their city. We got plan 14c. They need to step back and look at downtown, talk to the business and property owners, and design a set of improvements that coordinate with the existing buildings and businesses to make downtown an attractive and convenient place to shop.

Posted to Zephyr Online February 25, 1999
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