Springfield Rail Improvements Project progresses

David Fowler, executive director of Computer Banc, in front of a building that will be demolished as part of the rail project. The Computer Banc will lose the back third of its two-acre property. PHOTO BY STACIE LEWIS

Businesses between Carpenter Street and Ridgely Avenue will be affected

By Carey Smith

Land acquisition is steadily moving northward for the Springfield Rail Improvements Project, with a stretch of land between Carpenter Street and Ridgely Avenue being the current focus. While other segments of the 10th Street corridor have focused on widening tracks and creating or remaking overpasses, Usable Segment Six will create a new stretch of tracks for Union Pacific and Amtrak traffic.

The Norfolk Southern tracks will continue in the same location heading east toward Decatur, but the newly constructed tracks will bifurcate at Phillips Street and continue north through established neighborhoods and business sectors.Usable Segment Six construction includes the construction of a new underpass at North Grand Avenue. The tracks will bisect the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) building, and continue north along the east side of Caritas Bingo Hall, closing one of its entrances but otherwise leaving the building intact. The new tracks will then join up with the existing Union Pacific tracks at Ridgely Avenue.

In late 2020, the state of Illinois announced its purchase of the space formerly occupied by Sears in White Oaks Mall with plans to relocate the IEPA headquarters and its 700 employees. According to Mike Mendenhall, project manager for the Springfield Rail Improvements Project, the state is still working to determine the final plans for the IEPA building. It is possible the state will demolish the entire building, or it could remove the middle portion of the building where the tracks will be laid, with the east and west sides remaining, including preservation of the historic clocktower. “I would anticipate that decision will be made early next year,” said Mendenhall.

Owners of both residential and business properties along Usable Segment Six have been in negotiations with Hanson Professional Services, tasked by the city of Springfield to purchase land partially or in whole for the project.

Eve Blackwell-Lewis, an attorney, licensed real estate broker and ombudsperson for the project, works as a mediator between Hanson Professional Services and the landowners who are affected by the Rail Improvements Project. Whenever there is an impasse or difficulty encountered during the negotiation phase of land acquisition, either party can request Blackwell-Lewis to step in as an objective party, smooth out any misunderstandings and get the negotiation process rolling again. Blackwell-Lewis’ goal is to make sure a fair price is paid for the properties and that the best possible outcome is reached for both the landowner and the city.

In the role of ombudsman, Blackwell-Lewis is an objective party, but she grew up and currently lives along the 10th Street corridor, and has felt the effects of the railroad expansion firsthand. She explained that she used to live in a neighborhood, but because of the Springfield Rail Improvements Project, her neighbors have been displaced and the neighborhood is gone.

Blackwell-Lewis also mentioned businesses that were once community partners but have since moved elsewhere. She said these businesses were valued because “they hired people on this side of town. We don’t want them to leave, but the owners did not have a choice.”

Blackwell-Lewis said one of the hardest things about the negotiations between Hanson Professional Services and business owners is the difference in perception of property value. Land along railroad tracks, especially in east and north Springfield, are typically parcels with a lower market value. For many business owners, properties along the rail corridor were where they could afford to establish their businesses and this is where they invested themselves in their businesses and their communities.

This is where there can be a disconnect between the actual appraised value of a commercial property and the value based on the intangible investments made by the owner. Add to that the fact that acquiring comparable commercial property elsewhere in Springfield has proven difficult for many business owners who need to move to accommodate the rail project. Taxes and insurance are often far higher in other areas as well.

Ben Kruger of Beaver Creek Woodworks, 1020 N. 10th St., describes the negotiation process as arduous, but is thankful that the end is in sight. “We were looking at two to five places every week, for two years,” says Kruger, noting the challenges of running a business while looking for a new site to relocate. Kruger relied heavily on his wife, Peg, for her assistance throughout the negotiations.

Kruger is currently in the homestretch of negotiations for his new building, with zoning changes winding their way through the city’s approval process, and working with an architect to flesh out the details of retrofitting. Beaver Creek Woodworks will vacate its current site by June 2022 and relocate to 3120 Stanton St. Kruger will reopen soon after the building on Stanton is retrofitted.

Kruger was heavily invested in the northside neighborhood in which his business resides. He stated, “It took three to five years to let my neighbors know that I was someone who could be trusted, someone they could ask a favor of, and I would jump at a chance to help them. That I fit in and was one of them. That was me picking up trash every week.” This investment is part of the non-tangible assets that cannot be compensated and are nontransferable.

“I learned a lot in Vietnam,” says Kruger. “You modify and adjust. I want to survive. I want to be happy. My parents gave me the wherewithal to chase my dream and not quit. It served me well.”

Though the Computer Banc, 1545 N. 11th St., is not facing demolition of its entire commercial property, dealing with the railroad expansion has still been a challenge. Executive director David Fowler states that they are losing the back third of the two-acre property where four buildings currently stand. One building will be demolished and a portion of another building will be removed. This is concerning to Fowler because the Computer Banc has been growing exponentially over the last 12 years.

“We have lots of equipment, lots of donations,” states Fowler. “The scope of what we do has dramatically increased. That’s why we bought the property. We wanted the square footage.”

Computer Banc collects donations of outdated computer equipment and accessories from individuals and businesses all over central Illinois. The hardware is updated, then sold at a reduced cost to schools, nonprofits and low-income families. Computer Banc currently averages 4,000-5,000 pieces of equipment per year, with 32 area nonprofits being supported by the work of Computer Banc, including a national program to benefit veterans.

The pandemic brought on new challenges, with refurbished laptops and other equipment being in high demand due to the transition of both work and school to the home. “We worked six days a week for the first six months of COVID to keep up,” notes Fowler.

One thing Fowler states he had not anticipated was “the extraordinary amount of time it takes on my part as the executive director” to get through the negotiations. “Our challenge is to ensure the integrity of our organization so it can continue to grow. The space we’re giving up, we have to figure out how to recapture that space on our side of the property line.”

The buildings that make up the parcel the Computer Banc occupies were built in 1925 through 1928 as part of Sangamo Electric, which was then an outcropping of the Illinois Watch Factory. “They are amazing buildings,” remarks Fowler. “They don’t make them like this anymore.”

According to a list provided by Hanson Professional Services, Lesko Cooling & Heating, 1024 North Grand Ave. East, and Auto Recyclers, 920 Philips Ave., are two additional businesses that will be relocated. The McDonald’s and CVS on North Grand Avenue will both be affected but plan to remain in their current locations, with reconfigured entrances and parking. Springfield Electric, 700 N. Ninth St., will also lose some land as a result of the rail project but will be able to remain in place. Representatives from these companies either did not respond to interview requests or declined to comment, citing ongoing negotiations.

Construction on Usable Segment Six will begin in late 2023 and is expected to be completed and operational by late 2025. At that time, the Third Street corridor will be fully decommissioned, with its current rail traffic relocated to the 10th Street corridor.

Carey Smith lives between two sets of railroad tracks on Springfield’s north side and is looking forward to the completion of many overpasses.

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