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South Avenue closes for 10-day placemaking demo

Better Block SGF and the city try out a walkable streetscape in downtown Springfield

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All change starts with an idea – and most ideas start with a notion.

Addison Jones, president and founding director of Better Block SGF, had a notion that people might enjoy their community and each other more if they got out of their vehicles and encountered one another face to face. That’s the impetus behind a 10-day demonstration area erected by Better Block SGF and the city on South Avenue between Walnut and McDaniel streets Oct. 15-25.

The event, called a placemaking demonstration, kicked off with full closure of that single block of South Avenue on a Friday night. In the traffic-free space, tables were set up in the roadway for dining and drinks, and musicians took turns at a microphone on a makeshift stage. Art installations were temporarily added, and muralist Meg Wagler painted a colorful crosswalk design in the center of the block for use throughout the rest of the demonstration, which eliminated parking and made use of spaces for tables and chairs and illuminated, potted trees.

“It went really well,” Jones said of the kickoff event. “It was just a beautiful time.”

Jones, a design associate with Dake Wells Architecture, had envisioned something very much like what his group’s collaboration with the city pulled off: people relaxing together and enjoying their experience of downtown.

“I think the most satisfactory part to me was once it was all kind of shut down and there was just the quiet, calm sense of having a street that was just for people to walk around, play games, enjoy music,” he said. “It was relaxing and calming, and it went as well as we could ever expect it to.”

The demonstration happened on a block of South Avenue that contains retailers, professional offices, coffee shops, bars and restaurants.

“We wanted to do the demonstration there because, at least in our Better Blocks perspective, that would probably be the most ideal location for improvements like that,” Jones said.

While Jones said the South Avenue block showed itself to be a perfect spot for a walkable, closed-off street, he said the point was to showcase ideas that could be applied anywhere in the city.

“South Avenue was a really great platform, just with how active the street already is,” he said. “Our hope is that some of these ideas would be applied to South Avenue and other places downtown at some point, especially in the city’s comprehensive planning process.”

Kristen Milam, a Springfield spokesperson, said the city will be testing out several ideas that may be used downtown or in other locations throughout the city.

“We’re looking at a pedestrian plaza or boulevard, and that’s something we’ve looked at in various areas of downtown,” she said, adding the pedestrian-friendly measures could be put in place elsewhere.

She said for the city’s Grant Avenue Parkway project, officials examined closing off Mill Street north of Jordan Valley Park, where a Jordan Creek daylighting program will revivify the existing amenity.

“What would it look like to close that area off to just pedestrians?” she asked. “That’s definitely something we’re looking at in different areas, and the feedback that we get from this will be instrumental.”

The Friday night kickoff was not the place to find fiery opposition to the idea of street closures. The people who were present seemed to have come for dining, dancing, chatting and game-playing on a cornhole set that had been placed almost incongruously in the middle of a traffic lane.

“It’s wonderful,” said Wagler, interrupted from her pavement painting project. “I think that this type of activity is what people are looking for when they are choosing a city.”

She called the walkable street a good economic development idea and a wonderful placemaking initiative.

Marcus Aton, the secretary of Better Block SGF, was also enjoying the kickoff event.

“I love this,” he said. “Springfield has put a lot of time and resources into our downtown. We wanted to create a center city that was worth going to.”

Aton said his organization wants to see continued success in establishing Springfield’s downtown as a place to go for entertainment, and, by doing so, reinforcing the idea of community as well.

According to Aton, a pedestrian culture encourages chance encounters with people we know.

“We want to know our neighbors and have a strong community here,” he said.

Also present at the kickoff were two Drury University architecture students – a current and former intern with Better Block SGF.

“An event like this – seeing it all come together, where you can see the potential shining through – it’s starting to inspire me to want to make this a better place for everyone,” said James Pottberg.

Both Pottberg and Nathalie Lindsey said they had originally viewed Springfield as a place to study and merely pass through. Now, both say they are considering staying around after graduation.

One group that may have a dimmer view of the closure of parking spaces downtown is the business owners whose customers expect to park on the street right outside their doors.

At Sweet Boy’s Neighborhood Bar, manager Mike Zalewski said the event did not have a negative impact on the establishment.

“I haven’t really noticed too much of a difference so far as foot traffic. People are always walking around on South Avenue anyway,” he said.

He added that he thought the installation looked appealing.

“It has a good vibe. I think it’s nice,” he said.

He added that he thought the trees and traffic control devices would be torn down “a lot quicker” than they had, and confirmed that he had noticed some minor vandalism, but not a lot.

Better Block SGF and the city are seeking feedback from the public about the placemaking demonstration. Paper surveys are available at businesses on the block, and an online version can be found at SouthAvenue.QuestionPro.com.

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