Thursday, March 30, 2006

Downtown building painted to match car?

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

All eggs in the condo basket?

With low-rise buildings dating back to the 1800's, the city has the potential to be a New Urbanist paradise. But as in many other cities that began sprawling outward in the 1970's, the downtown was long neglected until high hopes for condo development along the riverfront spurred city planners to undertake a major redevelopment effort.

Now, the historical buildings are no longer deteriorating; many have been rehabilitated using preservation tax credits and other tax abatement measures. And yet much of downtown is still vacant, leaving some people in Fort Myers to wonder, What if you rebuild it and they still don't come?

"The city leaders have put all their eggs in the condo basket," said Warren J. Wright, the councilman for downtown Fort Myers...

"The city has approved all these condo units on the river and didn't pay any attention to the other pieces of the puzzle," said Marsa Detscher, an urban planning consultant ... (source: New York Times)

And how about us? Are we putting it all in the condo basket? Fort Myers shows how a single-solution approach to downtown renewal may not work at all. You can say, Florida's different. It's a different market, and so on.

But isn't it telling that Wellington, the townhome development on Kimball & Douglas, sits largely empty months after completion? As far as I can tell, the only unit occupied is the one purchased before construction by former Elgin Police Chief Gruber's daughter (the chief apparently had some kind of relationship with the developer) at a price of $255K, well below the current $450K asking price for each unit.

Could we be, like Fort Myers, building condos that will go unsold?

New - live classifieds!

For Sale listings from Craigslist are now in the sidebar. If you want to post your own item for sale do it on Craigslist. It will show up here automatically (if your location is Elgin).

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Planner's Blight -- good for punk rock?

Several years ago, the Chicago Park District expressed an interest in using eminent domain to take over the building to expand nearby Haas Park.

In fact, the park expansion plan kept owner Jim Lapinski from going back to bowling earlier. He wasn't going to invest money in fixing the place up if it was going to be torn down. But once it was clear the expansion wasn't happening, he moved forward with the rehab, he said. (source: Metromix)
I've written some posts about Planner's Blight. I thought it was amusing that in this case, Planner's Blight kept the Fireside Bowl going for years as a punk rock venue.
"I would've done this a long time ago if I'd known where I'd stood," he says. "But I had no idea for the last five years." (source: Chicago Reader)
Planner's Blight...good for punk rock?

Monday, March 27, 2006

Two years at the Third Floor

The building is still there, on the south side of Chicago Street just a couple doors west of Center Street. Every time I drive past I remember...

In the early 90's, Brian Peterson was the drummer for International Hoodwink. He started setting up shows around the area mainly to set up gigs for his own band. The first several were in the gym on the top floor of the Elgin Turners Club. That's where I first saw Apocalypse Hoboken, the Blue Meanies and several other good Chicago-area bands. That was before I got back into doing sound, but I was a regular at the shows.

One Saturday I arrived at the Turners Club to find out that, on very short notice, the Turners had decided that punk shows didn't fit their clean-cut athletic image. That night's show had been moved to the Scrap Skate Park in Hoffman Estates. By the time I got there, Slapstick had already played and Sidekick Kato was on. Then came Rancid (this was just before they signed their Major Label Contract), opening for the Queers. A really excellent show, with a big enough crowd to soak up the echoes that usually screw up the sound at a skate park show.

Meanwhile, Brian was scrambling to find venues for other shows he had scheduled. What now is the Prairie Rock Brewing Company was at one time the Grove Movie Theater, but had, by then, become a black-owned nightclub called the Number One Soul. They had a stage, and trouble making ends meet, and rented it to him for a couple shows. He did a couple more at Scrap. Then, in late 1992, he hooked up with the Elgin Alano club (Alcoholics Anonymous).

They had a fair-sized space on the third floor of this Chicago Street building that they were having trouble paying the rent on. Their take from Brian's shows was more than the lease payments and their strict no-alcohol policy was perfect for all-ages shows. The Third Floor was born.

It wasn't really designed as a venue for shows. The building had, at one time, been a department store or something. By this time, the ground floor was vacant, the second floor housed Line Archery (an indoor archery range), and the third floor was the recovering alcoholics' meeting room. While the building had an elevator, it had failed its last safety inspection several years before and was shut down for repairs... permanently. There was no intention on the part of the building's owner to fix it. So all the band instruments, amps, PA gear (and audience) had to climb the stairs... almost every Saturday for two years.

A lot of really good bands climbed those stairs. Some of my favorite shows were when Slapstick and Tricky Dick shared the bill. Both were Elgin bands: the members were friends who hung out together off-stage. It was unusual if you didn't see and hear Memo onstage during Slapstick's set, doing a duet with Brendan, and Brendan returning the favor during Tricky Dick's set.

Similar things would happen when Sidekick Kato, from DesPlaines, played with Jerkwater, a Crystal Lake band. At one Sidekick Kato/Jerkwater show, Jerkwater played nothing but Sidekick Kato covers and Sidekick Kato played mostly Jerkwater covers. At another, the two bands played their own songs, but swapped lead singers. Another pair of bands that worked well together and often swapped singers or songs was Oblivion and Apocalypse Hoboken.

Other Chicago-area bands that I enjoyed working with at the Third Floor include (in no particular order), the Smoking Popes, the Foursquares, Succotash, Trenchmouth, Herbal Flesh Tea, the Bollweevils, No Empathy, Not Rebecca, the Blue Meanies, Dr. Mannette, Contracide, the Tragedy Clowns, Hot Stove Jimmy, Sweetcar, Groovy Love Vibes, Limpspork, Greenhouse, Cheer Accident and a political/punk/rap group called the Dirt Merchants. That's a partial list - I have trouble remembering names sometimes.

There were also out-of-town bands on a regular basis - a musician himself, Brian has always had a soft spot for touring bands. It wasn't unusual for a planned five-band show to grow to six or seven at the last minute because a touring band had had a show cancelled and needed to try to make some money to continue the tour. A few of the bands I remember would be NoMeansNo, The Joykiller, Telegraph, MU-330, and Judge Nothing, but there were almost as many touring as local bands.

Every show was an adventure. We set up the "stage" (on the floor) right in front of the elevator door. There was no power there, so I ran several heavy-duty extension cords from the kitchen. I don't think we exceeded the fire marshall's rating for the number of people in the space, but it was based on slow-moving adults, mostly seated, for an A.A. meeting. When the same number of fast-moving kids got to jumping up and down in time with the music, you could feel the floor move... a lot.

It made me a little nervous to see my lights and speakers swaying to the beat. I could actually feel the floor moving under me. There was no air conditioning, and we had to keep the windows closed to avoid noise complaints, so in summer it wasn't unusual for a musician to pass out on stage. Drummers, the hardest-working musicians, often played in nothing but their underwear, and I'd lose ten or fifteen pounds in the course of an August show.

In 1994, NOFX was too big for the Third Floor, so Brian planned it for the Number One Soul... and I was to do the sound. Two weeks before the show, the owners sold the building to the people who would turn it into the Prairie Rock. The new owners wouldn't delay the start of construction for us, so Brian moved it to the Fireside Bowl. Fireside sound, by that time, was in the capable hands of Elliot Dix. I worked security--what the heck, it got me into a sold-out show. Slapstick opened.

In December of 1994, the Alano Club lost their lease. Matt Vecchio, lead singer first for Contracide and then Tragedy Clowns and later, drummer for The Mashers, had recenty opened an indy record and book store called Over The Edge, in the front part of a building his parents owned, a couple blocks away on North Ave. The back of the building was mostly empty warehouse, so Brian moved the next couple scheduled Third Floor shows there. By that time he had moved into Chicago and was also running shows almost every night at the Fireside Bowl. He stopped doing Elgin shows entirely for several years.

Meanwhile, I did a few of his Fireside gigs, then several he booked at the Bog Theater in Des Plaines. Another promoter, Dave Eaves, started using me almost every Friday at the Elmhurst VFW, and once in a while Dave and Brian got together to set up a massive show (10 or 12 bands on two stages) at the Wonderland Ballroom.

Every once in a while, somebody tries to restart the Elgin scene. A couple years ago, Memo, with his new (at the time) band, Los Chones, put together a few shows at Jalapenos - and I did the sound. Josh Trevino, brilliant guitarist and veteran of too many bands to name (currently with The Dutchmen), tried to get something started at a west-side bar (but it was 21 and over). Brian came back and set up a couple all-ages shows at the (once again cash-strapped) Turners Club in 2004, but so far, nothing has recaptured the magic of that two years at the Third Floor.

~ John K. Emerson

Sunday, March 26, 2006

North Street garage

I have a backlog of a lot of pictures, but I can't upload to Flickr until next month. Free membership has its limits. I'm thinking of putting out the alms bowl in April, and making that a fundraising month. With millions of readers (haha), it shouldn't be hard to raise the $25 needed for a Flickr Pro account.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Elgin's thriving music scene

"Elgin's developed a strong and thriving independent music scene anchored by numerous live-music venues and recording studios. There are more than a dozen bars and nightclubs booking live music, and several of these venues are actively presenting a balance of both local and national acts. With urban centers to its north and south, its easy for local clubs to grab a spare evening on a touring act's Midwest itinerary, put them onstage in front of an appreciative audience, and actually make a few bucks from the show's receipts. For locally grown talent, opportunities to make career headway are easily accessible, much the same way that local live-music venues have supported thriving music scenes in Art Towns like Oxford, Mississippi, and Lawrence, Kansas. And if the word of mouth about a new band is especially favorable, venues in Chicago are convenient and logical next steps up the music ladder." (Source: John Villani, 100 Best Art Towns in America)
Okay, okay. Instead of "Elgin's" it actually read "Bellingham's" (Washington). Instead of "Midwest," it was "Northwest." Instead of Chicago it was "Vancouver and Seattle." Forgive me, I was just thinking of...possibilities.

Yes, I think it's something we can do--we might even get in the book, as long as the city council gets out of the way. And they will if we ask them to. I predict that in ten years this description of a thriving music scene, "anchored by numerous live-music venues and recording studios," will describe Elgin.

I know this can happen. People like Brian Peterson make it possible. Mr. Peterson is known as the man who brought the Fireside Bowl to national prominence, giving it a ten-year run as the Midwest's preeminent punk rock venue. But the Fireside Bowl was not his first project. He started out in Elgin, organizing the punk music scene here and indeed, bringing it to regional prominence. Without the shows he organized in Elgin, who knows if bands like Slapstick or the Smoking Popes would ever have gotten the level of recognition they did.

It was only when he lost his space on E. Chicago Street in 1994 that the Midwest's punk rock capital moved from Elgin's Third Floor to Chicago's Fireside Bowl. Ten years later, the Fireside Bowl's owner returned the building to its original purpose as a bowling alley, and Brian Peterson returned briefly to Elgin, organizing a couple shows at the Turner's. Though he continues to book shows at various venues in Chicago, none of them have succeeded the Fireside Bowl as a mecca. Perhaps he'll come home and give Elgin another try.

Next week, I'll post a fascinating first-hand account of Elgin's thriving music scene in its early 90's heyday, written by a real insider: THE sound guy at the Third Floor.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

New - live events!

I've finally gotten around to adding a feed of Elgin events from Steve Munson beat me to it. His DNA blog has had an events feed up since last year, I think. Speaking of Steve and the DNA blog, he recently celebrated a year of blogging. Congratulations to Steve. By staying on top of the web's latest trends (like Web 2.0) and integrating the newest and coolest features into the DNA site/blog, he's done a lot to enhance the perception of Elgin as a place that, technologically speaking, "get's it."

Steve leads the charge, but he can't do it alone. Many of you who read this blog are affiliated with or have leadership positions in different Elgin organizations. Consider using tools like to post events, Flickr to post pictures, and RSS to syndicate your newsletters and other content. You can also keep a blog, like Janus Theatre is now doing.

Back to events...If you use, it just makes it a lot easier for everybody to know what's going on in the community. Once you join the Elgin metro and the Elgin group and add your event, it will automatically show up on this web page, the DNA blog and all other sites that decide to put up an badge or otherwise syndicate the Elgin group data. If you want people to show up at your play, performance, meeting, wine tasting, party, concert or powwow, you should use!

Even if you don't have any events to add, sign up and add yourself to the Elgin metro, so we can move up on the Illinois page. It's ranked by how many users are in a metro, and it's embarassing that Rockford could be so far ahead of us. Champaign, I can understand, but how can Rockford have so many more early adopters than Elgin? C'mon, sign up. Just five more users will put us over Naperville. And whatever you do, don't join the Fox Valley metro. It's a death trap.

Skunk cabbage in bloom at Trout Park

If you were wondering, they actually do smell like skunk. Scientific name: Symplocarpus foetidus. I don't know if they taste like cabbage though.

You can see why they used to call Trout Park the Cedar Swamp. This may be the only place in the Elgin area where Eastern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) grows naturally. Cold spring-fed streams contribute to a unique microclimate.

The Sanguinaria has not bloomed.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Elginites defeated

The two Elginites competing for the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor came in at second and third place, it appears.
Birkett got 50 percent of the vote, with 54 percent of precincts reporting. State Sen. Steve Rauschenberger (R-Elgin) had 30 percent, Kane County Recorder Sandy Wegman had 14 percent and attorney Lawrence Bruckner of Downstate Thomson had 6 percent. (Source: Chicago Sun-Times)
Sandy Wegman is perhaps still viable as a future candidate, but this may be the end of Rauschenberger's political career.

Rauschie's major missteps in this campaign:
  1. Blaming Topinka for the Keyes affair. This didn't square with what voters read in the papers. The papers had always been consistent in pointing to him and Dave Syverson as the primary proponents of an Alan Keyes nomination.
  2. Paying his brother $44K for 6 months of campaign advice.
  3. Saying he would not run with Topinka, and later telling the Courier in the same breath that that was "still true," but that he would run with Topinka. Did you get that? He said it was true that he would not run with Topinka and true that he would run with Topinka. Massachusetts voters may know how to make sense of such a statement, but Illinois voters don't.
  4. Seeming to endorse one candidate and supporting that candidate's rival at the same time. This was the final straw for those who gave him the benefit of the doubt over numbers 1, 2 & 3. The conclusion they now drew was that Rauschenberger could not be trusted.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Time to Centrecise?

The Centre, Elgin's $41M recreation center, reported record losses of $855K, putting it on track to hit a million dollar deficit in 2006. They've fired several managers already since the place opened. Now it seems the approach is to talk it down and reduce expectations. We're now told that the Centre was never meant to make a profit or break even. Other city programs lose money, we're told. Why should we expect differently? Of course, this is not what they were saying several years ago when they were campaiging for a $20M recreational center, which--through the magic of people spending other people's money--eventually ballooned to $41M.

Recap: Thomas Sandor (who was not on the council at the time) fought against it, but could not convince the city to hold a referendum. Marie Yearman voted against it, because the poor would have no access to it--they still don't. Later Ruth Munson joined her in voting against it when it was clear that there was no feature conjured by the architects--like a $600K walkway--the council could refuse.

My feelings at the time were that such a large project--the largest in Elgin's history, deserved a referendum even if the city were not legally obligated to hold one. I've been ambivalent about it ever since. On the one hand, it's a nice amenity, improves Elgin's image, and provides an incentive for people to live downtown. On the other hand, it's undemocratic--open only to those who can afford the steep fees, extremely expensive to build, inefficient to operate, and represents the sort of boondoggle and state-owned enterprise that we as Americans have learned to fear.

If I remember correctly, the Centre--said to be the largest publicly-owned recreation facility in America--drove the YMCA and one or two fitness centers out of business. But the Centre itself, no matter how poorly run and economically deficient, can never go out of business, because its deficit will always be covered by the City of Elgin. Governments around the world are privatizing state-owned enterprises, and we're building them.

In matters like this, I think the city's role should be as catalyst, not operator. Whatever the private sector--whether for profit or not for profit--can do better, let it do. I don't think the city's role is to provide dance classes or karate classes or ceramics classes or any of the things that a city bureacracy by itself is not uniquely positioned to provide.

We should support private organizations that provide these services, not compete with them. If we had $41M to spare, we could have spent it recruiting dance studios and karate studios and ceramic studios to Elgin. We could have helped them find spaces in our historic buildings. We could have helped them rehabilitate and restore those buildings. I think you'll find that $41M would have gone a lot further this way, while also bringing a lot of small business owners, artists and so on into the community.

In truth such a strategy would never have cost $41M, perhaps not even $4M. The cost would have been low, the risks negligible, and the returns comparable to a $41M boondoggle.

History has shown--America has shown--that the private sector can operate businesses more efficiently than the government. The lesson we've drawn for governments has been, "Don't compete and don't get in the way."

Yet because altogether the city's businesses employ some 900 people, whose union, the SEIU is the most important contributor to the campaigns of our councilmen, it's unlikely that the city will ever divest itself of any business. If anything, the opposite is likely to occur. Head count will hit a thousand, city hands will be in every pie, etc.

To me, it's sort of disturbing, because the city has harmed private businesses not just by competing with them, but also by its "Schock and awe" campaign of demolishing landmarks and historic buildings, scaring away the people and businesses that otherwise would have brought them back to life. Good sense requires us to ask ourselves, could Planner's Blight be responsible for the large number of vacancies in the downtown?

Could it be possible that the city government is involved in too many things and doing too much?

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Elgin -- punk rock capital?

Music is a key part of what makes a place authentic, in effect providing a sound or 'audio identity.' - Richard Florida (Rise of the Creative Class)
Several weeks ago, somebody added Alkaline Trio to the list of notable Elginites on Wikipedia. I'd never heard of Alkaline Trio, so I clicked on the link. It was a stargate to another world.

I've talked about Richard Florida's ideas about the creative class before. I agree with his basic idea that creativity generates economic activity, and that creativity is multidimensional, multidisciplinary, multi-etc. It thrives in a diverse environment where different forms of creativity--artistic, technological, musical--find free expression. If a city has a music scene, that kicks it up a notch on the creativity scale.

So imagine my excitement when I follow the Alkaline Trio link and discover a rock band. Could it be true? A music scene? A music legacy? In Elgin? I was both skeptical and hopeful as I plunged into Googling, exploration and discovery.

As a mostly-classical music listener, I never knew much about rock music, certainly not punk rock. This really was another world. Everything was new to me. In my quest to discover whether Elgin indeed had a creative legacy, I learned about and listened to the music of bands with names like Slapstick, the Smoking Popes, and Colossal. I heard about a place called Third Floor. And I pictured the Wonderland Ballroom blazing with bouncing heads and ringing with rock 'n roll.

I learned something profoundly important to the idea of Elgin as a creative city: Elgin was a rock music center.

This wasn't decades ago. This wasn't part of an irrecoverable past. This was in the 1990s. A while ago, yes, but recent enough that the guys who made this scene are still touring and playing music, and perhaps willing to come home for a reunion.

However briefly this scene may have lasted, its legacy has endured. The preeminent Elgin band Slapstick, often prefaced with the epithet "legendary" (as in "the legendary Slapstick") spawned a huge family of bands. Vagrant Records's Alkaline Trio is one of them. The Lawrence Arms is another. While the Smoking Popes, also a part of the Elgin scene, went on to a record deal with Capitol Records, a tour with Morrissey, and an MTV video before they broke up when Josh Caterer became born again.

As you know, the Smoking Popes got back together this year for their first tour in 7 years. This, along with talk of a Smashing Pumpkins revival has had some wondering if 2006 would be the "ultimate reunion year for early '90s Chicago rockers."

What I'm wondering is how such a reunion year can be complete without Slapstick's 10th-year reunion (in Elgin, of course). They broke up in 1996, so this year would be perfect. I don't know when Festival Park is scheduled to be completed, but maybe this is the way to open it.

Think: Elgin Punk Festival.

Imagine: The Smoking Popes and the entire Slapstick family (Alkaline Trio, Lawrence Arms, Duvall, Colossal, etc).

The crowd would be enormous.

We should pursue this--to honor our own music legacy and assert our vitality as a creative center.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

More about an arts center

Last week I mentioned the possibility of an art(s) center in Elgin. I may not have been clear about what I meant. Some museums call themselves art centers, but by art center I didn't mean museum (though Elgin can use one of those too). What I meant was a place that offers art programs and instruction, galleries, studios and so on; a place where artists work, not just a place where their works are displayed. Here are some more examples:
The last two of these are especially interesting. Both are housed in massive old industrial buildings.
The Beaver Mill, home of the CAC, is a 130,000 sq ft historic brick and stone mill... The CAC comprises 25,000 sq ft of the building and houses five galleries, a residency hall, and approximately 12,000 sq ft of studio space. (source: CAC|North Adams)
Yeah that's big. As for the Torpedo Factory, it has 3 levels of 84 artist studios, 8 group studios and 6 galleries.

The Torpedo Factory's experience may be instructive for Elgin:
Work began on the building in May of 1974, with artists and the City of Alexandria working together to renovate, build and clean out the interior...By July, artists had converted the huge space into a complex of bright and clean studios. Most of the studio spaces had been reserved by that time from a list of juried artists.

By 1983, the building needed major repairs and improvements. As part of a sale/lease-back agreement (a use of special federal tax provisions allowing for renovation of historic buildings), the building was sold to Alexandria Art Center Associates, leased back from AACA by the City, and subleased to the Torpedo Factory Artists' Association. As part of the sale agreement, the City had a one time repurchase option to be exercised in 1998.

The City Council approved the repurchase on August 31, 1998. The purchase price was negotiated in a prescribed series of appraisals. A balloon payment from the original loan to AACA in 1983 covered most of the purchase cost.

In the lease agreement that ran from 1983 to 1998, the City was responsible on an annual basis for many operating costs, a percentage of real estate taxes, and 1/3 of the utilities in addition to annual rent payments. Since 1983, the City and the artists have split equally the operating costs of the Art Center including the payroll for city staff.

In 1994, the Office of Budget and Management did a management study of the Art Center. At this time a recommendation to "privatize" the Art Center in 1998 was made by the City Manager. Over the last two years, the Artists' Association and the City have negotiated parameters which govern the privatization.

On September 1, 1998 the Artists' Association took over all management of the building, and the City now acts as landlord. Factored into the artists' rent were the repurchase cost in excess of the balloon payment, including 62% (a number based on the artist-occupied percentage of the building) of the interest, general service operating costs, and all future maintenance and repair costs excluding exterior repairs. The artists are responsible for 62% of utility costs. All other operating costs are borne by the artists, including all administrative, janitorial, security, staff, advertising, printing, minor building maintenance, lighting supplies, and insurance for the entire building. (source: Torpedo Factory)
In my view, projects like this may offer a higher return and incur fewer risks than the boondoggles to which we have become accustomed.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Full-text Courier and Herald articles on GBL site

A month or so ago, I discovered that you could get old Chicagoland (Elgin Daily Courier, Herald, Chicago Tribune, Sun Times) newspaper articles on the Gail Borden Public Library site.

It looks like about 10 years worth of articles have been indexed and are available to anyone with a GBL library card. The periodicals librarian didn't know about this database at the time I found it, so my guess is that it's somewhat newly available to us.

Here's the link. And instructions if you need them:
  1. Log in with your library card number
  2. Select View All by Title
  3. Select Chicagoland Newspapers
Have fun.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Kresmery Art Center anyone?

The more I examine this picture of Kurt Kresmery's warehouse on the old Waverly House site, the more impressed I am. To me, it looks like an ingenius blend of several styles--Classical Revival, Commercial/Chicago, Deco perhaps. It's really beautiful. A little cleaning would make it look marvelous.

Since the Courier's story seemed to suggest that Mr. Kresmery may still be considering ways to reuse the building, I thought I would mention one possible use: an art center. Many other communities have them. They're frequently housed in an old industrial building. And I think this building is particularly suited for the purpose.

Have you been to Lillstreet Art Center in Chicago? I was there one time last year to examine their pottery studios and their ceramics. I was really impressed. It would be great to see something like that in Elgin.

The benefits of an art center extend beyond those who use it. It can catalyze urban renewal. Look at what happened in South Florida:

ArtCenter was established in 1984 by a small group of artists who envisioned a potential cultural renaissance in what was then a blighted and vacant Lincoln Road. In partnership with the City of Miami Beach, the group obtained Federal Community Development Block Grant funds to acquire properties and create an artists' colony in 21 storefront spaces. Since then, ArtCenter has become the cultural and economic catalyst for the revitalization of the Lincoln Road neighborhood and South Beach. In 1986, the City of Miami Beach recognized the success of our founders' vision by designating ArtCenter's three-block area as the Lincoln Road Arts District.

Today, Lincoln Road is a lively magnet for culture, entertainment, retail business and community activity, and Miami Beach is arguably the cultural center of South Florida. Now recognized as one of Miami-Dade County's major cultural institutions, ArtCenter operates from its three historic buildings at 800, 810 and 924 Lincoln Road. The nearly 60,000 square foot campus encompasses 52 artists' studios, exhibition galleries, art education classrooms and administrative offices. Of the 7.2 million international and national visitors to Miami/South Beach annually, hundreds of thousands walk down Lincoln Road and view ArtCenter's display windows and exhibitions.

For its role in the shaping of South Florida's cultural landscape, ArtCenter has received recognition from local media such as New Times, which in 1997 called us the "best gallery in Miami", and from national media such as The Wall Street Journal, which in 1998 reported that our "presence has transformed the area...into a hub of commerce." In its May and November 1999 issues featuring the Greater Miami art community, Art in America magazine highlighted ArtCenter's "impact on the Miami art scene and its emerging profile" describing ArtCenter as "a gathering place for talented and ambitious young Miami artists." (source: ArtCenter South Florida website)

These art centers are generally run by nonprofits, which means Mr. Kresmery may need to accomplish this transformation from "blight" to destination through a great act of philanthropy, donating the building to a nonprofit and taking the deduction against his River Park Place profits. Since property prices are currently inflated, this may be more financially attractive than it sounds.

Here are some community art centers, which may give you an idea of what a Kresmery Art Center might look like:

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Tear it down or fix it up?

Warehouse Elgin, IL
Originally uploaded by Seth Gaines.
I think this is the building described in the same Courier story I mentioned yesterday ("Downtown Elgin block up for grabs," 3/5/06), described as "the sprawling old industrial building at the southwest corner of Highland and State Street."
Kresmery said the building he owns is an unlikely candidate for rehabilitation, although he has tried to think of ways to reuse it, making it a potential tear-down project. (Courier 3/5/06)
Kurt Kresmery has done some great work in downtown Elgin, and this isn't meant as criticism--afterall he knows more about real estate than I'm likely to learn in my lifetime. Maybe I'm just naive. But I thought it was odd that he told the Courier it was a potential tear-down project, and at the same time has a "for rent" sign on the outside of the building. Will anybody rent space in a building that will potentially be torn down?

Could this be another case of Planner's Blight?

In any case, I hope he will consider rehabilitating it, because under the soot and the ugly windows--some bricked over, there's a beautiful building. Restore the windows to what they were originally, sandblast the facade, and a gleaming building with big windows and high ceilings will emerge. Replace the loading docks with doors and entranceways, and you've got a building suitable for many uses: offices, studios, schools, lofts, and even retail.

This site is especially sensitive. Any demolition would probably involve the destruction of the Waverly Stables, one of the last cobblestone structures in Elgin. That's something we should avoid. We certainly should not be incentivizing the destruction of any more landmarks.

The Waverly Stables aside, this building is itself architecturally significant. If you describe this as a Classical Revival building, then with the destruction of the Crocker Theater, I think this may be the sole example of the style in the downtown.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Planner's Blight in the downtown

Vargas signed a two-year lease with the building's owner, John Haight. But talk of the possibility that a developer could try to buy up the block's mixture of old industrial, commercial and retail properties to make way for townhomes or condominiums has her worried she may have to move again soon, she said....

Only a few months ago, Vargas, the diner owner, looked like another example of a new willingness to take a chance on downtown. But these days, she said, she's wondering if she won't wind up a victim of its success.

Vargas said the move cost her $137,000. And she wants to stay. (Courier 3/5/06)
One signal after another. First it was "nightlife not welcome," and now it's "invest at your own risk."

Our councilmen have all been involved in city affairs long enough; I'm sure they know about something called Planner's Blight, also known as Death Threat Syndrome. And I assume the city bureaucracy is familiar with it as well. If you haven't heard of it, Planner's Blight is the phenomenon whereby a city's own urban renewal policies create urban blight. Think of this scenario, for example: you want to open an office in an old or historic building, but just as you're about to invest thousands of dollars in leasehold improvements, the city announces its intent to demolish a nearby block and replace it with condominiums. Would you go ahead with your investment?

How do you know the city won't condemn the building you're in and put you out thousands, tens of thousands of dollars or more? You don't know. Which is why as a businessman you err on the side of caution, and choose not to invest. Who's going to invest in an old building when the authorities are on a demolition binge?

Monday, March 06, 2006

"24-hour" downtown

Beer gardens....hmmm. Maybe they didn't notice that Prairie Rock's beer garden is less than a hundred feet away from River Park Place. Or were they planning to shut that down too? It's funny--or tragic--because the Prairie Rock and its beer garden were part of my pitch to prospective Elginites! What am I supposed to tell them now?

Oh well.

I love old people, but a geriatric downtown is not going to lead to a vital city center for Elgin. We need to mix it up, with old and young. We should understand that people with school-age children are not likely to move into the downtown, which means that to balance out the retirees we need to focus on attracting young people (20s-30s). And young people need nightlife as much as old folks need fiber.

Nightlife is important for other reasons. Safety, for example.

This is widely accepted in the urban renewal field. Jane Jacobs, the doyenne of intelligent urban renewal, stressed the importance of retaining establishments with different hours of operation. Some businesses, like bakeries, should open early in the morning. Some should close at 5:00. Some should be open for dinner, and some, like cafes and bars, should be open after dinner. It's important to maintain a constant flow of foot traffic. You don't want a block where the doors are all locked at 5:00 pm. That leads to empty and desolate streets, which invite trouble. Foot traffic provides safety. The presence of eyes--that of customers and proprietors--keep a city's streets safe at night...

Don't throw me off the cliff just yet. The idea of a downtown Elgin nightlife is not mine. This isn't a bizzarity I pulled out of my hat (though the word bizzarity is). This idea was here long before I ever started yakking, and it has an official and impressive pedigree. It is enshrined in the Center City Master Plan, which envisions a 24-hour downtown Elgin. I'm not pulling your beard. Here's the proof:
The guiding vision is based on eleven goals that, together, ensure an integrated approach to revitalizing downtown Elgin and its riverfront.

Goal Number 3: Create a "24-hour" downtown
But are we committed to this vision? Or was its formulation just a case of consultant's utopia and our acceptance of it then a brief lapse in judgment?

Entrepreneurs, restaurateurs, developers, retailers, investors, banks and I would love to know.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Great good places

Did you notice how the same article mentions JB's Pub on Mclean Blvd? Again, haven't been. But wasn't it amusing that the neighbors petitioned in support of the beer garden? Of course they support it.

Where did we get the idea that beer gardens need to be a hundred feet away from homes? It's such an odd idea. If word gets out to the Chicagoans living next to Barleycorn's, they'd ridicule us as rubes. The people in that neighborhood and in others all around the world consider their beer gardens a community asset. It's one of the "great good places" that has managed to serve neighborhoods despite the onslaught of globalization, commoditization, and mass marketization of just about every other aspect of traditional American life.

A place where you can sit down with your neighbor is something this city should be encouraging, not shoving away with a hundred foot pole.

Yes, there are people in our community who won't touch beer. God bless them. There are also people who won't eat meat. And if they do it for ethics, God bless them too. Does that mean we should shutter the bars and slam the steakhouses closed? Not directly of course, but by creating an environment that tells them they're loathed?

Are we not, by the arbitrariness by which we set and enforce bzyantine rules about when and where and how they can open and close and who they can serve and and how much and such and such, have we not hung over their heads by a thread the sword of ruin?

I'm amazed at what David Shelton goes through just to keep the Mission open in Elgin. It's a wonder that he chooses to remain here. What makes him put up with it? I marvel.

Elgin nightlife - mission impossible?

“He’s doing a good job, but we’re not ready to relinquish our responsibility to keep tabs on him yet,” said Gilliam, of the club’s owner, David Shelton. “We’re not ready to turn him loose.” (Daily Herald 3/2/06)
I like Bob Gilliam. I've always thought he would make a good mayor. So when I read this it surprised me, because I don't think David Shelton deserves to be spoken of in such terms. He's not something you can leash or turn loose. His business, the Mission, has done more for Elgin's image as a regional city than any other establishment of comparable size.

A dozen cities would be happy to have him. Elgin is privileged to have him here; it's not the other way around. I've never been to the Mission, but I've heard enough times that it's "like a place you'd find in Chicago." I know how important it's been in giving Elgin some credibility as a lively city rather than a closed-at-5:00 pm outpost.

How do entrepreneurs interpret what's been happening in Elgin? They're not fools. They watch what happens to places like Anthony's and Luxur. They note the bizarre rules imposed on Martini Room (no cheap beer is one of them). And now they hear a councilman disparage one of downtown Elgin's most successful entrepreneurs as someone who can't be "turned loose."

When the owner of one of Chicagoland's most successful clubs has to go up for city council review every year and is forced to say:
“I’m always fearful because you never know how the next administration is going to be and how they are going to view it.”
What kind of signal does that send to the entrepreneurs and the investors and the banks that finance them? Who's going to want to risk their money in the City to Watch? It's Happening Here? What is, bankruptcy?

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Gail Borden in Amazon

Do you use Do you use the library in Elgin? Do you ever find yourself looking at a book on and wondering if Gail Borden's got it? Then maybe this tool's for you.

It places a link on each Amazon item's page, right after the title (like in the picture above), that allows you to search the GBL database with one click. If the book is checked out you won't even have to click it, because it will tell you right there when it's due back. Intrigued? Follow these 3 easy steps:
  1. First of all, this only works with Firefox, a web browser like Internet Explorer but better. It's free, and you can get it here.
  2. Once you've got Firefox running, click here to install the Grease Monkey extension. A Firefox warning("To protect your computer...") will probably pop up at the top of the page. Just click Edit options, then click Allow, then click Close. Then click here (again). Finally, restart Firefox.
  3. Once Grease Monkey is installed, click here. At the top of the page, you'll see a message starting with "Toodles..." Click the Install button. That's it. You're done. Now go to and see if it works.