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Looking at past offers glimpses into city’s future

Springfield officials see placemaking opportunities by examining historical trolley stops and waterways

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When Tim Rosenbury looks at a map of Springfield, he mentally imposes a map of the city’s historic trolley routes over its contemporary roadways, and the resulting picture is rife with possibility.

“One of the things that I’ve been investigating is how we might revive the development patterns of central Springfield, particularly as they developed around trolleys,” said Rosenbury, the city’s director of quality of place initiatives.

In their 1914 history book “Past and Present of Greene County, Missouri,” Jonathan Fairbanks and Clyde Edwin Tuck wrote, “While Greene County as a whole has no electric lines as yet, the city of Springfield has one of the most extensive and best equipped systems of street railway of any city of its size in the entire Union.”

At the time the book was published, the Springfield Traction Co. was operating 23 miles of track throughout the city.

The authors said the idea of the railways was officially floated in 1869. The Springfield Traction Co. started a mule-powered railway soon after. Routes were added all over the city, and then mule power was replaced by electricity. Eventually, gas-powered buses replaced the streetcars, and locals turned out en masse to take a last ride on Aug. 2, 1937.

“If you research and find the Springfield trolley map, what you’ll find is the trolley lines connected neighborhoods in really different ways than the streets do,” Rosenbury said.

Throughout the city, a few vestiges remain of areas where development happened along trolley stops. One example is the intersection of Pickwick Avenue and Cherry Street in the Rountree neighborhood.

“The area around Pickwick and Cherry developed the way it did in the teens and twenties because the trolley went out there, and people would get off and go buy groceries, pick up a newspaper and walk to their house at the end of the day,” he said. “You start to see neighborhood commercial node development around transportation.”

John Sellars, executive director of History Museum on the Square Inc., said the corner of Pickwick and Cherry was the site of a sweeping curve for the trolley line to make a turn to go south on Pickwick from Elm Street.

“That jog there was where the corner had to be made curved to allow the streetcar to go through,” he said.

Today, there is a resurgence in the area, with restaurants and other small businesses attracting so many customers that the city is installing traffic calming measures to protect the pedestrians who visit older establishments there, like Tea Bar & Bites Bakery and Cafe and Imo’s Pizza, and newer ones, like Tie & Timber Beer Co. and Team Taco.

But the historic Rountree neighborhood is not the only area ripe for development because of these historical nodes.

One unexpected place where Rosenbury sees similar potential is a former trolley stop at State Street and New Avenue, near McGregor Elementary.

“These streets that had the trolley on them, these are a little bit wider than other streets, and so we have the opportunity with these to do bike routes, to do trails,” he said. “We can possibly do more in terms of connection. It may not be a connection with trolleys – their time has come and gone – but it could accommodate another mode of transportation, like scooters, bicycles, walking, running, things in addition to vehicles.”

Rosenbury compared the development opportunity at State and New to the planned Grant Avenue Parkway project, which will provide 3 miles of pedestrian and bike access along Grant Avenue from Sunshine Street to downtown.

Rosenbury added, “Atlantic and Broadway is another intersection that has potential to be reborn in that way. That was on the trolley line, too.”

Today, the intersection is the site of Queen City Soul Kitchen and other businesses, like antique store Finding You Treasures, a coin-operated laundry and two engineering firms.

Rosenbury said these historical nodes are places where current development might succeed.

“It works because it’s always worked,” Rosenbury said. “It’s almost like DNA.”

Rosenbury said the trolleys are not the only underlying patterns in the city. Urban streams that were key to early development are now playing a role in redevelopment.

He noted Fassnight Creek is undergoing improvements near the Springfield Art Museum because in the last 100 years, there has been more development farther upstream. The same is true for Jordan Creek, which is being restored by removing concrete coverings in what is essentially a flood control project that is being overlayed with placemaking efforts.

“This is what I’m excited about. We can take some of these elements that made Springfield attractive to its first travelers and now make them attractive to citizens eight to 10 generations later,” Rosenbury said. “We’re looking at that kind of underlying structure to guide us into the future.”

Sellars, too, sees history wherever he looks. It’s apparent in the width of city streets; for example, in the Rountree neighborhood, Pickwick is wider than Weller and Fremont avenues because it had to accommodate the trolley; it is narrower at Catalpa Street because that was the trolley’s terminus.

Sellars likes seeing how old areas of the city are being reborn.

“I think we’re seeing it already,” he said. “I’m very impressed with the variety of things that are going on Commercial Street. That’s a key to it. You can get overbuilt in one particular genre of business in a location and that kind of stifles that growth. Commercial Street has a cross-section of all types of businesses.”

He also likes seeing renewed interest in downtown.

“I hope to see more of this with the constant influx of activity from the university,” he said. “It has great potential.”

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