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Photo by Diane Cox
Many downtown commercial spots sit vacant, waiting for new shops and restaurants to call them home.
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Photo by Diane Cox
Grand Piasa Body Art and Artist Supply relocated from Homer Adams Parkway to 558-560 E. Broadway.
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Photo by Diane Cox
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Photo by Diane Cox
The Third Street area of Downtown Alton has seen new bars, restaurants and retail businesses open in the last 10 years.
Always a river town, Alton was also home to thriving industries such as the Owens-Illinois Glass Bottle Works, Alton Box Board Co. and Laclede Steel.
One by one, those old factories closed their doors, and Alton has been faced with the task of reinvention.
Over the years, Argosy Casino sailed into town, the marina was built, antique shops opened and the amphitheater has become a popular venue.
A craft brewer moved into an old bakery and a former school houses a dozen small businesses. A local organization, Alton Main Street, has dedicated itself to the revitalization of the downtown area. Time and again, the city’s mayor has emphasized the need to bring new business to the area.
But, much like the current election climate, not everyone is on the same page. Alton is 16.6 square miles and its future, especially the downtown region, is in a tug of war between those who want changes in zoning ordinances and those who argue such changes are illegal.
But zoning is complicated, and no one has a crystal ball. Add to that prejudices, politics and popularity contests, and you have government in action.
Tug of war
In the spring of 2015, Chris Hinkle found himself caught in the middle between two groups with very different visions of the downtown area when he wanted to relocate his tattoo shop from Upper Alton to Broadway.
It would be the first of several contentious zoning issues to come before the City Council over the next six months.
Bill Stoutenborough, a member of the city’s Plan Commission at the time, was one of the commission members who vigorously opposed a special permit to allow Hinkle’s business, Grand Piasa Body Art and Artist Supply, to relocate from Homer Adams Parkway to 558-560 E. Broadway.
“That area is C-4, downtown retail,” Stoutenborough said.
Just as vigorously, others lobbied for the change. In the end, Mayor Brant Walker cast a deciding supermajority vote and Hinkle received his special permit.
Martha Kane, 63, has been on the commission several years. She favored the tattoo parlor’s move.
“Our impressions of these businesses come from television and movies, so we have preconceived ideas,” she said. “To me, it was the right thing. It was a business opportunity for them and would bring in people from surrounding areas like St. Louis.”
In November, the two groups were once again at odds, as the City Council overturned the Plan Commission’s recommendation of a negative vote to allow Steve and Dee Gehr to open Nicky G’s pizza parlor at 1801 State St. As with the tattoo parlor, issues were raised on the legality and wisdom of allowing a business to open in a district zoned for residential use.
Stoutenborough was on the commission for 18 years and fought going against the zoning ordinances. He was one of two members who were not reappointed by the mayor when their terms expired earlier this year; Anne Doucleff was the other. In a compromise with Walker, the City Council Feb. 24 voted in two of the three new members the mayor wanted on the commission, James Rogalsky and Eva Perkins. John Rain was retained instead of being replaced by Wade Gibson and Gary Doerr was reappointed for another term.
“Change is not easy and perhaps the City Council felt three new members were too many to change,” Walker said. “Both (Rogalsky and Perkins) are very qualified. Rogalsky is an entrepreneur and energetic. Maybe he has a different vision based on his experience with the brewery. Perkins comes from a corporate background and is a Woman of Distinction (award winner).”
Rogalsky, 28, is co-owner of the Old Bakery Beer Company on Broadway. He’d attended at least one Plan Commission meeting and had written letters to the City Council and mayor in support of Hinkle. That’s when the mayor challenged him to “put your money where your mouth is” and get involved.
“So I wrote a letter of interest,” Rogalsky said.
Rogalsky said there were two special-use permits up for consideration but there was a lot of reading to do first, mainly Alton’s 124-page comprehensive plan.
Reiterating that “I’d like to push the commission to be friendly to new businesses that may open up in town that they may not patronize themselves,” he said Broadway especially is in “desperate need of some fresh blood.”
Perkins, 67, owner of Green Perkins Promotions, declined to say who asked her to be on the commission, and only agreed after she’d sat in on a meeting. She does say she would have supported the tattoo parlor’s special permit request, stating “I would have agreed because not all tattoo parlors represent drugs.”
Perkins is the only African-American on the board. When asked if she thought she was invited because of her race, she said yes.
“There needs to be an African-American voice on that commission,” she said. “I hope that we can work together in getting decisions made. I can work with anyone.”
Doerr, a former 3rd Ward Alderman, has been on the commission for years, landing a spot at the end of former mayor Don Sandidge’s first term.
He calls his tenure “interesting.”
“We have the same challenges as the days when there was a store or gas station on every corner,” Doerr said. “Many buildings went through several changes and some sat derelict. Those that did were a blight on the neighborhoods.”
He said if a building is in good condition, it isn’t a problem to use it in a similar business. One example is Alton Day Care and Learning Center on Elm Street. After the Alton School Board consolidated the city’s elementary schools and shuttered McKinley Elementary, the nonprofit took up operations.
Another school is a notable exception. Once home to Alton’s only elementary and middle schools, the Milton Schoolhouse was closed in the 1980s. It saw new life during the 1990s as a glassware factory. In 2009, Joel and Meredith Elliott bought the property and have since turned it into a business incubator that houses 12 independent service-based and brick-and-mortar businesses.
Doerr also supported the tattoo parlor because, he said, they wanted to move to a commercial street.
“If tattoos had been popular when we did the comprehensive plan, it would have been included,” he said. “You can’t let your own prejudices come into play.”
1st Ward Alderman Jim Ryan said there’s a lack of communication between the City Council and Plan Commission. He advocated for a joint meeting between the two governing bodies, which took place earlier this month.
“My fear is that we’re operating from two different sets of criteria and I want to resolve that,” Ryan said. “When we get a recommendation either way, we don’t really know why or how the commission voted as it did, especially if it’s a ‘no.’ We should find out why.”
He also emphasizes the commission has a tough job, while keeping in mind that new business is desperately needed here.
“They try to interpret the comprehensive plan. If they vote strictly to uphold that, then the applicant appeals to the City Council and we’re not strictly following it, either.
“Some might not like certain businesses and have certain reactions to others, but the city has serious financial problems, mainly due to pensions.”
During the March 8 meeting (the first for Rogalsky and Perkins), questions were raised as to the usefulness of the commission if the council overturns decisions that some commission members see as a dangerous precedent. One potential remedy presented included a special district for commercial property in residential areas.
The comprehensive plan: how it works
Stoutenborough was on the Plan Commission when it wrote the city’s comprehensive plan approximately 15 years ago; it was revised in 2003. Before that, he said, the city only had 40-year-old zoning ordinances, which the commission also revised.
“The idea (of a comprehensive plan) is to eliminate or reduce spot zoning, which is illegal by Illinois regulations,” he said.
Now, “the comprehensive plan and spot zoning has been thrown to the side and is allowing nonconforming businesses in residential areas,” he said, referencing the pizza parlor plan at 1801 State St. In that instance, the City Council and mayor again overrode the commission’s negative recommendation and allowed the business to open.
“The comprehensive plan is an advisory guide; it’s a blueprint of a community,” said Matt Asselmeier, deputy director of the Department of Development and Housing.
He said neighborhood plans can get very detailed, even down to how buildings will look if they’re in an historic district. But comprehensive plans are general, broadly declaring one area to be residential, another to be commercial. And commercial can be as different as the city’s downtown entertainment district and the industrial area on Broadway past the police station.
Zoning ordinances are what separate residential and commercial use. That sounds like a fairly cut and dried distinction, but zoning can be tricky when someone wants to tweak it with a special-use permit or a particular area evolves.
Sara McGibany, executive director of Alton Main Street, wants to see an updated plan, with plenty of input from the citizens for whom the plan was created in the first place. Her group has seen both the challenges and the potential in relation to the downtown area.
“Entrepreneurs have an abundance of options on where to locate, so it’s essential that Alton roll out the red carpet to instill confidence that new businesses will be welcomed and supported by our community,” she said. “There is a widely held vision of the Broadway corridor as an eclectic arts and culinary district, and Alton Main Street has worked diligently to establish fertile ground that attracts these creative enterprises.”
McGibany said the area is at a crucial crossroads, with what was once seen as a “dead downtown” learning to live again. In just the first two months of 2016, multiple businesses planted roots along Broadway, and the new ownership of Mineral Springs Mall brought both business and residential life to a struggling spot.
McGibany is proactive with welcoming business, especially locally owned business, to the area, and doesn’t want to see the fine print block the city’s potential growth.
“(Alton Main Street) offers personalized attention to budding entrepreneurs on a regular basis in order to help streamline the path to take their businesses to the next level,” she said.
Alton has 18 zoning districts. Most of the city falls under the categories of R-2 (residential, single-family homes) and C-2 (general commercial). Each zoning district has a list of permit uses and a list of special uses. It’s the special uses that have to be reviewed by the Plan Commission and City Council.
Under state law, there is a minimum district size, Asselmeier said.
“You can’t have one parcel of property zoned one way when all the others around are something else,” he said. “Alton is a home rule city so there is a little wiggle room, but it’s modeled after state law.”
Even before the current zoning issues came up, Alton allowed special uses such as a beauty parlor or day care to operate in a neighborhood. By amending the ordinances, Asselmeier said, “we have allowed smaller businesses to be in R-2 districts. Now anyone can ask for the same. But it still must be reviewed; restrictions can be applied and it can be revoked.”
Zoning decisions aren’t made in a vacuum. Commission members may have several issues affecting decisions, including personal feelings regarding the business, the business owner, and what some feel is simply respect for rules and the law.
And sometimes it’s just a matter of no one imagining a different use at that location.
When conflicts arise — as they often do — it takes work to resolve them. And the city is bound by local, state and federal laws as well as by court decisions.
How easy is change?
It took the Plan Commission two years to revise the zoning ordinance and write the city’s comprehensive plan. That was 15 years ago. Is it time for another revision?
“It’s time-consuming and you need to allocate money for it,” said Asselmeier, who worked on updating Godfrey’s comprehensive plan in 2007. “People have different visions for the city. Ideally, that means input from all residents about a specific timeframe, say 10 or 20 years. No one has a crystal ball.”
Walker said he wanted to “stay on the track we’re on. I like the way Homer Adams is being developed, as well as the downtown area. The Broadway corridor has a good mix. I love seeing these older buildings being repurposed.”
“This isn’t the Alton we knew years ago with industry that may not come back,” commission member Kane said. “The old Alton is our history, our past. We should be glad we have young, insightful people with vision. It’s nice that a lot of them are interested in the community.”
When someone fills out an application for a special-use permit at City Hall, it gets sent over to the Plan Commission. The commission reviews the permit with the business owner, getting details on the business’ plan. A notice is mailed to property owners within 250 feet of the prospective special use informing them of the permit request. After input from neighbors and the public, the commission makes its recommendation to the City Council, including any necessary restrictions.
If it’s a positive recommendation, the council just needs a simple majority to approve the special-use permit. If the commission issues a tie or a negative recommendation, the City Council and mayor need a supermajority — five — to overrule the commission.
NAICS — The North American Industry Classification System code is the standard used to classify business establishments.
Spot zoning — Placing a small area of land in a different zone from that of neighboring property.
Nonconforming use — When a previous activity is allowed to continue after zoning in that area has changed. For instance, a coffee shop can still operate if it has been in existence prior to the most current zoning regulations even if other businesses have closed down and the area is zoned residential.
Special-use permit — When a business owner requests to use a piece of property differently than it is zoned. Plan commissions can place restrictions and limit the scope of the business to reduce the impact on the neighborhood. A detailing business requested a special permit to open across from Alton Middle School on College Avenue. The NAICS code included multiple uses that some felt were not needed, so the Plan Commission amended the text to locally exclude uses that seemed too industrial for the area.
Home rule city – Can pass any regulations or laws it deems necessary unless state law prohibits it.
What about diversity (or the lack thereof?)
There are nine members of the Plan Commission. Eva Perkins is the only African-American and just one of two women. At 28, Rogalsky is the youngest member. With the exception of one other member in his 40s, the other seven are in their 60s or older.
Mayor Brant Walker conceded he hadn’t thought about the diversity of the commission in terms of race.
“I looked more at the backgrounds,” he said. “I saw a need for more entrepreneurs.”
First Ward Alderman Jim Ryan said the people who serve on (the Plan Commission and City Council) tend to be retired, like him. He believes a generational divide showed itself in the matter of the tattoo parlor’s special permit request.
“The more diverse you get, the better,” he said. “Different perspectives are better.”