Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Why do they refuse to reuse?

I'm surprised that they still haven't reached reached an agreement on what to do with the Grant School site. It would be more reassuring if in the future such decisions are made before anything is demolished. Elgin's old buildings, institutional and commercial included, are community assets. When the building's are gone, so are possibilities for reuse. One great example of reuse is the Community Crisis Center, housed in the beautiful Franklin School. That was a really wise way to preserve that landmark. The old Elgin High School, headquarters of U-46, is another good example. Reuse should be preferred to building new buildings, because it preserves a link to the past. I hope the Boys & Girls Club, which is raising $3M for a new facility, will adequately explore that option before building what will inevitably be something big and ugly.

Likewise, the Civic Center's library site should be reused rather than demolished. An art museum would be an object of community pride, and draw visitors from throughout the northwest suburbs. It's not a problem if we don't have a permanent collection; there are numerous museums in this country with no permanent collection. They host traveling exhibits, which is what an Elgin Art Museum should initially do.

I don't understand why at a time when housing inventories are at record high levels and home prices are dropping like loose socks, we're building more condominiums. The developer, Ryan Companies, is proposing a tower up to 10 stories tall. This would dwarf the Hemmens and wreck the integrity of the Civic Center. Are we really ready to give up the Civic Center?

If the building is demolished, there's still no guarantee this development will even be built, because it depends upon the housing cycle, which it seems may already be turning. The city needs to take a breather from demolition work. There are enough projects and developments to digest as it is.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Some links to check out

Friday, February 24, 2006

RSC-y business

The Tribune said something interesting:
Council members justified the additional incentives by explaining that the Chicago firm had incurred $7 million in extra costs for demolition and cleanup of a former department store and relocation of a cell phone company's antenna.
This is intriguing, because if RSC already sank $7M into their downtown condominium project, they would not have walked. I don't know why Elgin city manager Femi Folarin suggested otherwise:

"If we didn't feel this is necessary to get the project to move ahead, we wouldn't do it," he said. "We took a hard look at it."

If the city said no to the extra $2.5M, RSC's worst case scenario at project completion would have been a loss of $2.5M. If they refused to complete the project, however, they would have been stuck with a loss of $7M, what they've already spent on demolition, etc. Which is worse: a loss of $7M or a loss of $2.5M? They would no doubt have chosen to complete the project, with or without the city's charity.

Folarin also suggested that it would be hard to find another developer if RSC backed out. But why would a new developer hesitate? $7M in construction--actually demolition--work has already been done for them.

Am I missing something here?

Thursday, February 23, 2006

One problem, two solutions

The city agreed to give RSC another $2.5M for their Fountain Square condo project. I thought it sort of amusing that both RSC and PAR were faced with the same problem: rising construction expenses--hence reduced profit margins; but each chose a different solution. PAR chose to raise its condo prices--disgruntling buyers and reducing demand, while RSC decided to ask the city to kick in more money.

Don't ask, don't get?

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Smoking Popes 3/31/06

Picked up my Smoking Popes tickets today at Dundee's Clearwater, where they'll be performing on March 31.

It's too bad there's no place for them to perform in Elgin. Afterall, at least one of the band members (Eli Caterer) was born here and Josh Caterer lives here. The KC Chronicle picked up the story last fall when the Popes first reunited, but I think our two papers missed it. The Chicago Tribune covered the historic show:
In the last decade, Metro has played host to such rock icons as Bob Dylan, the Smashing Pumpkins and Slayer. But none caused as much pre-show commotion as the Smoking Popes' sold-out reunion concert over the weekend.

The Popes were selling out Metro shows in the mid-'90s with a sound that put songcraft and heavy-handed guitar riffs on an equal plane. A major label deal didn't pan out, but the band's cult following has only expanded. Artists from Morrissey to Alkaline Trio have hailed the Popes as innovators, and their sound really hasn't been imitated, let alone replaced. Little wonder the line to enter the club Friday was stretched down Clark Street for hours, and ticket-holders were still pouring into the club well into the band's 90-minute set.
Check out their MySpace page.
Watch their old Rubella video.
And buy some of their recordings on Amazon.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Condomillions (another 2 to be exact)

The Courier reports (click here to read the Herald's coverage):
Citing a number of unforeseen circumstances, among them a sharp rise in its construction costs, the developer of a major downtown retail and residential project has asked the city to increase its $9.4 million incentive package by nearly $2 million.
What upsets me is the fact that they're complaining now, after the landmark Spiess building has already been demolished. Why didn't this come to the city council before the demolition? What happened in the past few months that justifies this panhandling now? This can set a nasty precedent. I predict that if the city gives in to RSC's demands, PAR Development--the developer of the River Park Place condos--will soon be asking for its own additional subsidy.

PAR Development made the news on its own today by forcing its earliest buyers to pay 40% more for their condominiums than originally agreed upon. I can easily imagine a situation where a month from now, they bring their pans to the city council, and announce that since raising prices has meant fewer buyers and greater risk that some of their units will go unsold, they require that we chip in another $2M. Otherwise they will walk away. Just like RSC. Both leaving in their wake the rubble of our landmarks.

The Spiess building. The Crocker Theatre. These were the things that made Elgin Elgin. And we threw them away.

And next? The Civic Center.

There's something wrong in city hall.

Whatever may happen with these condo projects, they reveal the risks in our current approach to downtown redevelopment. It's time to think things over.

New Elgin construction (Chicago Tribune)

  • Elgin--Senior Suites of Elgin, 522 N. McLean Blvd., 150,000-square-foot senior living facility, April 2006, $18 million.
  • Elgin--Autumn Woods, 1520 Summit St., 72-unit residential development, November 2006, $6 million.

“There’s not going to be an Elgin Commons" - Schock

The Daily Herald reports that Sandor is now the lone dissenter on the 72-acre Wal-Mart issue. It also describes Mayor Schock's far-west dream:

Schock said the thousands of acres west of Randall Road up to Route 47 that are slated for high-end residential development is a much better suited area for upper-end retailers.

“For many other communities, Randall had to be it for them because they are not going much farther west,” he said, citing Geneva, St. Charles and South Elgin as examples. “But we have the opportunity to go a long way west, and that’s where we will pick up higher-end retail.”

Munson v. Madigan -- place your bets

Sun-Times published an article about Rep. Ruth Munson's work on some mobile home legislation--a David & Goliath struggle, with Munson as David and Speaker Madigan as Goliath. I missed the article when it was fresh--it's almost a week old now. Highlight:
But what about this? As a second-term Republican legislator unopposed in the primary, Munson's seat has been targeted by Madigan. Could that be the reason a bill with her name on it is dead?

Monday, February 20, 2006

New - live newsfeeds!

I've added a live newsfeed from the Courier and the Tribune. Couldn't do it with the Herald, unfortunately, because for some reason they're not indexed by Google's news search engine. I've also added a link to the Courier's site if you want to go there directly.

Hopefully these small changes will make The Elginite a more useful resource for Elgin news. If you have other suggestions, always feel free to email me. Thanks!

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Elgin -- the environmentally friendly city?

David Kaptain put one vision forward today; he told the Courier that, "we can become the environmentally friendly city." But such a vision, while noble, is I think too constrained. It's not enough to be an environmentally friendly city; it goes without saying that a nice place to live and work will be a place with a nice environment. Fountain in a river or not, almost every city in America can make a claim to being an environmentally friendly city. And in this region, other cities can make far more credible claims. Besides, it's questionable whether such positioning would even help Elgin prosper--economically and otherwise.

A clean environment and sound environmental policy is important, but it's only one component. And it is, I think much more a regional issue than a purely local issue. As I mentioned in a previous entry, the independence of the Kane County Forest Preserve District would likely go some way towards expanding acreage under protection, and much of that would be outside of the city but hopefully on its borders. The Fox River is, of course, a regional issue, and all the communities need to work together to get the state to remove the mill dams between--at least--Elgin and Aurora. There would be no need for fountains in the river if the dams that impound and de-oxygenate water were removed. Certainly there's a cost to this beyond the financial cost; many people, me included, think the dams are picturesque. The real question though is whether that beauty is better than the beauty of clean, clear water, filled with healthy fish, wildlife and plants. We're used to thinking of the Fox as a dark, smelly, felt-covered river, but it's only this way because of what we've done to it with these dams. Councilman Kaptain knows about the Fox more than I ever could learn, but what I do know--from my reading of history--is that when Hezekiah Gifford first stepped into the river, the water was crystal clear and his feet touched gravel not mud.

There's another benefit from removing the dams: you can canoe or kayak all the way between Elgin and Aurora. I would love to do that. Wouldn't you?

Towards a creative city

Richard Florida's ideas about the creative class, in addition to Joel Garreau's ideas about the so-called edge city, can help city leaders understand Elgin's need to create a credible urban environment, particularly in the downtown. This is perhaps the only route we can take, because Elgin has an urban character. It possesses urban diversity on many fronts: ethnicity, income, employment mix, housing stock, architecture and so on. This diversity, which we value, precludes it from being a "suburb" in the classical sense or a "town." We simply don't have the option of being Geneva. And any strategy that ignores that is bound to fail because the contradictions between the reality and the vision would be unmanageable. Neither do we want to be an industrial backwater, vulnerable to globalization, and requiring us to live in the midst of huge warehouses and factories.

We want a better balance. We want our city to be creative. We want it to have a lively popular culture--not just a fine arts culture. We want it to have industries of the future, not the detritus other cities have discarded in their own quests to move forward. We want Elgin to be resilient and strong. For a time I thought city leaders knew where they wanted to go and were on the right path, but sometimes I'm not so sure. Sometimes I get this feeling that they're like that guy who chooses to accept the quarter today rather than the dollar that would have been his had he waited just another day. If you have a vision--whether for yourself, your organization or your city--you are bound to say no to some things. If you choose the right path, you say no to the left path and everything that belongs to the left path. I don't see the city saying no and that's what worries me. It makes me think that the city is in fact guided by no vision at all.

How Creative Are We?

Richard Florida's site CreativeClass.org links to a bunch of great articles. I think that like Arlington (pdf), Elgin should figure out where it stands in the key metrics.

Getting Prof. Florida to speak in Elgin would go a long way towards making people aware of his ideas and how they can potentially shape a realistic and vital vision for where we want to take the city. I think there's a great deal of--at best--ambivalence about what the city council is doing and the direction in which the city is heading.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Hemmens Auditorium -- Acoustically Superb?

I was reading about the Civic Center on E.C. Alft's ElginHistory.com site, and ran across this interesting observation about the Hemmens:
An acoustic marvel, it is one of the finest auditoriums in the country. Soloists can be heard without being drowned out by the instruments, and the sound is clear, no matter which of the 1,225 seats is occupied.
This wasn't my impression. Last time I was at the Hemmens (3rd row, orchestra section), the solo violin sounded weakly and the percussionist played way too loud for the rest of the orchestra. Because the percussionist drew hearty applause when I'd expected the audience to clamor to bang his head between cymbals in retribution, I figured it was must have been my seat that was the problem, not the musicians. I also remember one or more councilmen complaining about the acoustics of the Hemmens. But I don't think Mr. Alft made this up. It must have indeed at one point been acoustically excellent, and if so, there's no reason it can't be returned to that condition. You know where this is going...

Enough to Cover Centre's Losses?

By coincidence, the new tax revenues (net) they expect from the proposed 72-acre Wal-Mart project is about equal to the Centre's yearly deficit. From a story in today's Herald:
The latest financial statement shows the facility was running at a deficit of more than $640,000 for the first 11 months of 2005.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Whither Wal-Mart?

An astute reader left an insightful comment about the Wal-Mart project:
My concern about the whole thing is if and when Wal-Mart moves, what happens to the gargatuan building they will leave behind? What is left will be yet another empty big box building to go along with the Dominicks at Otter Creek.
This is a good point. Instead of just going along or accepting minor concessions--or even imagined concessions--from Wal-Mart, the city might use the controversy to exact material concessions that address this issue and the general issue of vacant "big box" stores. They might demand, for example, that before it breaks ground on the new site, Wal-Mart must have a contract in hand for the redevelopment of the old site by a reputable retailer. And I still think they should demand market studies for other sites in the city. In any case, it would be reassuring if the city adhered to an informal policy of 1) not constructing any new "big box" stores if vacant ones exist, and 2) not building on agricultural land when infill opportunities exist.

I had mistakenly said that the city stood to lose a total of $14M in tax revenues over 10 years. I had forgotten that the figure they reported didn't represent a figure for a net gain in taxes; it didn't take account of the loss in tax revenue from the to-be-closed Wal-Mart. The actual figure should be somewhat less than half what I reported, a relatively small figure in comparison to the $20+ million per year Grand Victoria contributes to Elgin's treasury, and not much more than the cost of building the latrines etc. in Festival Park.

Though Robert Gilliam seems to have decided which way he's going to go, there's enough controversy that another motion to table would be warranted until a broader consensus in the community can be reached.

On the imagined concession I mentioned in the first paragraph (from the Courier):
Councilman Thomas Sandor said that while Gilliam is "wise" to be concerned about development of the outlying lots, the council need not ask Wal-Mart to agree to restrictions in order to control what kinds of businesses locate there. Instead, council members could simply turn down proposed stores if they wished, he said.

"Outlot restrictions, although helpful, are something we already have the ability to regulate," he said, adding that he has no doubt the company will agree to Gilliam's request.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Civic Center Doomed?

I find it curious that none of the courageous people who oversaw the design and construction of the Civic Center are standing up for it and trying to stop its destruction. If the city announced in one fell swoop, "we're going to tear down the Civic Center," surely there would be a strong reaction. But because they're doing it piece by piece, I suppose nobody has really noticed. First they started by building an inappropriate parking garage flush with city hall. Then they announced that they would let a private developer raze the library building and put up a condominium. The library building, however, is ideally sited and is properly a public space; it should be converted to another public use, such as a museum, without destroying it. The library is part of a harmonius composition which includes itself, the Hemmens, the court house, the city hall and the post office. Replacing the library building with a condominum would be like knocking the head off of a beautiful statue and putting in its place a foul mask. You can't do that to a work of art; and the Civic Center is a work of art, an AIA prize-winning landmark. Its fate as a whole should be discussed in the open. If the community wants to destroy it, then fine--what can you do? But that discussion needs to take place, because in fact, the redevelopment of the library site does amount to the destruction of the Civic Center. We can't deny it.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Tribune hasn't kind words for Rauschenberger:
But it's Rauschenberger who can leave heads scratching. A major player in bringing the disastrous Alan Keyes to Illinois in the 2004 U.S. Senate race, Rauschenberger tries to blame others, such as Topinka, for not supporting Keyes and, in the same breath, tries to distance himself from his role in helping to get Keyes on the GOP ticket...In looking at his recently filed campaign finance reports, however, several questions arise. For example, how could someone plow through $800,000 in six months only to have to fold a campaign for governor and accept an offer for state second banana instead? Perhaps part of the reason is the more than $44,000 that Rauschenberger paid his brother for six months' advice as a consultant. In addition, the campaign covered another $921 for John Rauschenberger's meals at high-priced restaurants, nearly $800 for his cell phone bills and almost $1,000 for his gasoline during those six months.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Elgin Company Sold

JPMorgan Chase & Co. has agreed to sell its life insurance business to an Alabama company, raising questions about the fate of some of the 812 employees at the Elgin-based unit.

Birmingham, Ala.-based Protective Life Corp. is paying $1.2 billion in cash for the Chase Insurance Group, which includes the life insurance business Bank One Corp. bought from Zurich Insurance in 2003 and then moved from Schaumburg to the Elgin building that also houses a credit-card call center for JPMorgan. JPMorgan acquired Bank One in 2004.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Who Cares What Time it is in Elgin?

The Chicagoist answers a question:
Why do the old clocks at the downtown Metra stations say "Elgin Central Time"? We're in the heart of the city, but some suburb tells us the time? Why isn't there a "Chicago Time"?

Monday, February 06, 2006

To answer a question I previously posed, the property in question is not in the city, and the vote is in fact on the question of annexation. So if the city doesn't annex it, maybe there is some risk that the property could be annexed to South Elgin via an annexation corridor, which would deprive Elgin both of control and revenue. I don't know, however, if this is a real risk or just conjecture.

In any case, it's clear that there's some strong opposition to Wal-Mart occupying that site, and the objection is based purely it seems on the impact it would have on Elgin's image. This is more on account of opportunity cost--forfeiting the possibility of a Commons--than on Wal-Mart's perceived negative image.

In terms of immediate financial impact, the Wal-Mart proposal is likely superior to most other options, including a Commons. The Courier today described how sales per square foot at Geneva Commons is much lower than what is projected for Wal-Mart (read the article). But because of externalities, the broader financial impact is much less certain. Those who oppose Wal-Mart may argue convincingly that having a Wal-Mart on that site, as opposed to a Commons, will in the long run dampen any appreciation of property values on the far west side. Proximity to an upscale lifestyle center (Elgin Commons) it can be argued will enhance property values. And this increase in property value, along with other externalities--many not directly measurable, may in fact result in an economically superior option to that offered by Wal-Mart.

But this is admittedy an academic argument, because nobody is offering to build an Elgin Commons. If Elgin holds out for an upscale development for a period of ten years, it would forfeit about $14M (present value) in tax revenue. Depending on what you believe, that may be a price worth paying.

Perhaps there is still room for negotiation and compromise. Such a compromise might result in Sam's Club taking over the available space in the Otter Creek Shopping Center (map) and Wal-Mart taking over the space on Summit next to Jewel. The existing Wal-Mart on Randall would remain. Infill development is always a superior option, so this would be a great outcome for Elgin. Wal-Mart would get a chance to expand on Elgin's east side, where there's a significant market. And Sam's Club would possess an ideal location at the intersection of Randall and Route 20.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Just got around to reading the Sunday papers. The Courier's editorial page came out strongly against the proposed Wal-Mart. Mike Bailey's editorial is available online. He says Elgin has an inferiority complex:
While Algonquin, Crystal Lake and St. Charles have flourished, Elgin foundered. A disproportionate share of apartments to owner-occupied homes brought temporary residents with no commitment to their community. Older housing stock deteriorated and became multiple-family dwellings.

The influx of lower-income residents and immigrants brought the need for expansive social services, charities and agencies to serve them, which in turn attracted more of the same. Low-income housing generated the need for even more such housing.

Quality department stores left, to be replaced by seedy strip malls, bargain stores and resale shops. As the unskilled labor pool here grew, so did the concentration of businesses requiring such help.

While communities around us moved forward, we languished in envy...
Separately, the Herald published an interior picture of the rotunda of the historic First Universalist Church (also see the Downtown Elgin blog). The owner discussed a restaurant, but to me it looks perfect for some kind of a performance space. There are some 200 seats in the balcony. If the acoustics are good it would be perfect--perfect size, perfect everything. Price is around $750K plus $1M to revamp it. Any takers?