Editorial: SOS (Save Our Strip): Message Received?

Carbondale and SIU have long histories of looking gift horses in the mouth, but the city council did
Chris Wissmann

 

Carbondale and SIU have long histories of looking gift horses in the mouth, but the city council didn’t waste time Tuesday, March 25, when it approved a redevelopment agreement with Carbondale Flats in just about record time.

Thanking representatives of Carbondale Flats for their investment in the city at last week’s council meeting, mayor Don Monty said, “There has been talk for a long time about ‘We need to do something about downtown.’ And this represents the first redevelopment project of any large consequence in the downtown area that I can ever remember since I came to Carbondale in 1968, other than the large Old National Bank building. Otherwise there have been no other large developments downtown.”

Monty is absolutely correct about scale— the $20 million Carbondale Flats development, if built as proposed, may constitute a game-changer for the Strip.

Carbondale Flats will demolish the 710 Bookstore building and replace it by fall 2015 with a new multilevel structure. The bottom floor will be reserved for commercial uses— retail and restaurants, for example.

The top floors, meanwhile, will consist of high-end student apartments— a total of three-hundred bedrooms. And that’s what’s so exciting for the Strip.

Downtown residents tend to shop, dine out, and recreate near their homes— rather than driving across town to get a pizza or a loaf of bread, they’re more likely to pick up those items if they’re available within a short walk. This development could prove a godsend to the many restaurants, nightclubs, retailers, and services available within a short walk of it.

In addition, the built-in customers it will provide ought to spur other entrepreneurs to open places downtown. As Monty noted at the meeting, “It has been said by many people that if just something would get the ball rolling that there are other projects that people would like to do. And so I hope this will be the incentive for other people to go ahead and start making their investments in our downtown area.”

And the high-end nature of the proposed residential units ought to help attract SIU students who want top-quality off-campus rental housing within walking distance of the university.

Furthermore, the project, through Tax Increment Financing, will leave the city with money to address parking, drainage, and other eligible downtown problems.

Carbondale Flats is no panacea. Parking issues come to mind— Carbondale Flats may reduce parking available to the general public in what now is the 710 lot, though the proximity of a built-in customer base and city construction of new parking could provide an acceptable offset. Downtown businesses, of course, will need to offer goods and services these new renters want. The positive impact of the development likely will remain near the downtown and won’t necessarily provide the boost needed by the entire city. For example, it may temporarily help downtown businesses pull through the local economic downturn caused by twenty-some years of almost continuous SIU enrollment collapses, but it’s no substitute for a growing student body.

But... there goes this piece of Carbondale, looking a gift horse in the mouth. For right now Carbondale Flats provides a massive investment in a struggling section of the city, one that offers genuine hope for a downtown renaissance.

Monty accurately summed it up as such: “We really hope this works out.... What happens to the downtown will largely depend I think on how this project goes.”