Saturday, November 05, 2005

Seigle's, one of Elgin's leading corporate citizens, announced the sale of the company to a British multinational this week. Mark Seigle said that the merger wouldn't interfere with plans to donate the ground they own across from the library should the city decide to build a new concert hall there. I hope he decides to donate the ground whether a concert hall is built there or not. I think it would be best to convert that block into a large park, replacing the function of Festival Park and allowing the latter to be built out (see my post on Festival Park).

I don't think it's a good idea to put the concert hall on the Seigle's site. There's a lesson to be learned from the Civic Center, which failed to revive downtown entertainment, dining and retail business. I think the failure of the Civic Center was in placing the Hemmens all the way in the middle of the site, isolating it from the downtown's retail and dining establishments. If the concert hall is built across from the library, it will again be isolated. I think it was one of the people associated with the ESO who was quoted in the paper when the idea was first publicly floated, saying how great it would be to have this concert hall across from the Centre and the library. I agreed with him then. I thought it would be great to have this group of new civic buildings, almost like a campus; it would look nice.

But then, I asked myself, are people going to walk over from a concert to the Centre for a workout or a swim? Or to the library ? After some thought, I realized that any combination of these three buildings doesn't really make sense. I mean, it doesn't reflect any real usage pattern. People eat before or after going to a concert. They don't go work out.

So I don't agree with that site plan anymore, but I can understand why it seems to make sense. A similar rationale created the Civic Center. But the Civic Center, while aesthetically pleasing--it won an AIA award, failed in its purpose of reviving the downtown. Let's learn from that. I would suggest a site much closer to the heart of downtown. One such site would be the parking lot occupying the northwest corner of Douglas and Highland. Yes, that's a part of the Civic Center, but with the expected demolition of the former library building--and its replacement by a condominium project, the Civic Center will have lost its integrity (this is merely the continuation of a process that started with the construction of the parking garage next to city hall). It's no longer a landmark worth preserving; it's fair game.

The disintegration of the Civic Center makes you wonder whether it may be time for a project as ambitious as the original Civic Center project. This would involve the relocation of the post office and city hall, both of them perhaps in need of expansion? Perhaps the west bank--State Street-- would be better locations for them, freeing up the ground they sit on now, making possible not just a concert hall but an art museum. It is time afterall for art in the suburbs, and what better place than Elgin? Negotations with the Art Institute or the Terra Foundation may prove surprisingly fruitful, especially if the architectural significance of the new building is assured. Architecturally-stunning concert hall and museum would do wonders for Elgin's image and economy, transforming it into Illinois's second city...and Bilbao of the midwest.


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