Pure Oil: New Plans and Downtown Vitality

With new plans for the Pure Oil building, we must consider if a bank is good for downtown.

This Tuesday (May 15, 2012) the Pure Oil building will once again be before the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) to review new plans for the property. What was once considered an unworkable re-use plan has now become workable. Hmmm...  (You can view the plans here.)

In the way of review; the property owner wished to (present home to ) to accommodate the drive-through lanes of a hoped-for banking tenant in his neighboring building. That demolition elicited, in my experience, an unprecedented outcry from the community. The demolition was denied in not one, not two but three public hearings.

The property owner, Joe Stanton, will be presenting to the HPC a plan that will fundamentally preserve the street-facing facades and use the existing garage bays as the drive-through lanes. Clever enough, and it preserves the street-side facades of the building. Though the disposition of the garage doors will likely elicit discussion, I expect the plan will be approved by the HPC with little change.

It does, however, resurrect the oft-heard sentiment during the previous outcry of “What do we need another bank for?” Well, I wish to do my part in fleshing out that discussion.

I’ll start by saying that the Mr. Stanton and the St. Charles Bank & Trust (the potential tenant) are doing nothing wrong and are playing by the rules. In this case, they both have certainly taken their lumps in very public forums. It appears that the process has cost one or both of these petitioners some significant dollars to this point.  

That being said, I find it hard to imagine a property use that would be less in keeping with Geneva’s treasured downtown. It seems that a critical component of our downtown is that each neighboring property (for the most part) is an attractive, inviting retail business. If you are leaving business "A" and see business "B"just 40 feet away, you might go check it out. If you have to cross a long retail-devoid stretch of property to reach some more shopping, that can become a Sahara Desert isolating the two sides.

Heck, you might not even see other retail establishments that might exist across that desert. If a pedestrian shopper reaches this void and can’t see a reason to cross it, then they turn around. A bank drive-through, traffic and a bank is part of that desert and holds zero attraction for pedestrian shoppers (and zero sales tax potential.) The implications for downtown vitality should be self-evident.

It is my understanding that this plan, if approved by the HPC, will have to go through the Plan Commission for the special use of incorporating a drive-through. What I don’t know is whether the Plan Commission is bound to rule on more objective matters like traffic and safety ... or whether they can consider the question on many lips of  “What do we need another bank for?” I hope they can answer that question.

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Rick Nagel (Editor) May 09, 2012 at 07:34 PM
Another smart, well-articulated blog by Mike Bruno. Thanks, Mike!
Noel G. Rooks May 09, 2012 at 07:45 PM
Valid points, Mike. Thanks.
Kurt Wehrmeister May 09, 2012 at 09:12 PM
I think my HPC colleague Mike Bruno and I have already had this conversation, but I would submit that it is up to the market -- indeed, to those willing to take the risk and make the investment -- to determine whether "we need another bank." In any event, of course, as a banking establishment is an allowed use in Geneva's downtown business zoning, that question is not under the purview of either HPC or Plan Commission; the Plan Commission passes judgment only on whether the special use of a drive-through facility itself is acceptable.
Mike Bruno May 09, 2012 at 09:23 PM
As I hoped to make clear. Business use is absolutely not the purview of HPC. The application for special use DOES make it the purview of the Plan Commission...to some extent. I confess ignorance to just what limits of the PC are. Like HPC can speak and rule with binding authority on some aspects of preservation, the PC would have their area's of authority. Given that "plan" is in their name, I might guess that long term planning is in their area of authority. I simply offer my opinion that a successful retail district requires contiguous, pedestrian-friendly spaces...and a bank with drive-through in that location compromises our ability to grow our retail district.
Terry Flanagan May 09, 2012 at 10:17 PM
Ah, yes. The all-seeing, all-knowing market gods will determine the best course of action. These are the same deities that decided credit swap derivatives were a good idea. But the underlying assumption that what's good for the market is good for the community or country is essentially wrong. The market suffers from the lemming effect. There are more followers than leaders, which is why we have periods of boom and bust. The market has a tendency to copy success and always overdoes it. Strip malls, bedding stores, coffee shops, and banks. Everything reaches its saturation level and then becomes counter-productive. We have 22,000 people in Geneva, a third of whom are under 18, and two dozen banking facilities. With most people switching to on-line banking, how many people are actually served at physical locations? The Maytag repairman is busier than most banks. Since the market lacks common sense, community planners need to exercise the restraint business often fails to show. We also need market diversity.
Noel G. Rooks May 10, 2012 at 02:17 AM
@ Mike - if the HPC can only rule on preservation, can it be argued that the significant alteration of the building for this use goes "against" preservation, or does the fact that it is adaptive reuse negate that fact?
Mike Bruno May 10, 2012 at 02:53 AM
Fair point Noel, but the HPC does have to take a more nuanced position. It would be simple to tend toward making Geneva a living history museum where there would be no change to anything ever. In the long run that would not make for a viable downtown in 21st century America. We do, in every meeting, have to balance realistic use and preservation and property rights. The HPC focuses primarily on the streetscape. If contemporary reuse means blowing the back out but preserving the front, then it can be a reasonable compromise. So I suppose that the HPC "only ruling on preservation" really involves some pragmatism. A bunch of vacant, unusable, unaltered buildings doesn't help the community. To date, I think Geneva's HPC has been remarkably successful if walking the line.
Jeff Ward May 10, 2012 at 11:39 AM
Exceedingly well put Mr. Flanagan!
Jeff Ward May 10, 2012 at 11:54 AM
Dear Geneva, Much like I advised those Stone Park nuns how to battle a new next door strip club, I don't think you realize how much power you have beyond the HPC, Planning Commission and the City Council. The "market" works in many more ways than one. What happened when Mr. Limbaugh referred to a law student with the "S" word? If you're OK with this building conversion and the displacement of two sales tax paying businesses, then, by all means, patronize St. Charles Bank. But if you aren't, AND WITHIN THE BOUNDS OF REASON AND THE LAW, you could, for example, picket the main St. Charles Bank location on Rt. 64 which would, at least temporarily, generate the kind of press most businesses would really prefer to avoid. Or someone could call for and organize a boycott of a St. Charles bank that's coming in and deleteriously changing our downtown. You know, online signatures and that whole thing. And there's that bad press again. It know the expression is overused, but we really do have the power to shape our city. Jeff
Kurt Wehrmeister May 10, 2012 at 02:14 PM
The argument that my friend Terry presents may well be valid, quite seriously. If that's the case, though, then the appropriate action would be to petition the City Council to revise the zoning ordinance to switch banking establishments from "allowed use" to "special use" -- which would then require any proposed new banking establishment to have to go before both Plan Commission and City Council to make its case that it is beneficial to the community.
Terry Flanagan May 10, 2012 at 03:46 PM
Kurt, One can never have too many friends, my friend, or too much money. However, I do think a community can have too many banks. Most historic districts are intended to be navigated by foot and should have diverse attractions, including historic sites, quaint shops, and restaurants. As Dick Untch remarked, there about 80 permitted uses in the downtown area, none of which require any consideration by the Plan Commission or City Council. We should encourage diversity in the area and 80 permitted uses does exactly that. A walk-in banking facility, while not the ideal candidate for the area since we already have so many, would be a permitted use. It would also encourage foot traffic, which is desireable in an historic and shopping district. An ATM machine is probably the ideal banking facility for the area. But the bank is interested only in the 40,000 cars that pass by that spot because banking, if not done electronically, is mainly done on the way to or from some place. We need destination businesses in the downtown area. For us, it's not the number of cars that pass by, but the number that park and stay a while. A drive-thru facility does not encourage people to leave their cars and explore. I think we need to work with property and business owners in the area to help foster that sort of environment.
Stacy May 10, 2012 at 04:42 PM
Terry - I honestly wish the Patch had a "like" or "+1" button because your sentiment mirrors mine and many others exactly.
David Amundson May 11, 2012 at 01:39 AM
Just up the road in St. Charles, the market apparently decided that we needed bars in our downtown, and a whole lot of them. What has the zeitgeist given us in return? A whole lot of drunk twenty-somethings and merchants (the few who are left) who are largely dejected, from what I can tell from the conversations I've had with some of them. I think Mr. Bruno and Mr. Flanagan are spot-on. To build a viable, vibrant shopping district takes careful planning. To leave it solely up to the invisible hand of the market is to take a gamble with the future of your community. I have been watching this episode in your town unfold with great interest. I truly hope that with more intelligent public debate, all y'all can find a solution that works to the benefit of all concerned, including Mr. Stanton.
Karl Brubaker May 11, 2012 at 03:22 AM
Terry, Two fantastic posts on this thread. Indeed, if there was a thumbs up button you would be inundated with UPS. Great job!
Annette MacLean May 11, 2012 at 01:46 PM
There is only one problem with this plan- it looks like The PURE Gardener with flowers, benches, etc BUT it's not. We will no longer be there. The Art Box will not be there. The photography shop has seemed to disappear over night ( I peeked into his window) after supposedly just signing a month to month lease with it's landlord- St. Charles Bank. The owner of Always in Style told me that if we are not there , she really has no interest in resigning her lease. That is three retail businesses gone in one swoop. Not to mention the young family that lives in the house behind The PURE Gardener. The house that is stated to be insignificant. I wonder if they have learned of their fate? All of the highschoolers that we employ will not be able to walk to work after school anymore. And, last but certainly not least, where is Daffny the duck going to lay her eggs? She lives there too.
Jack May 11, 2012 at 03:40 PM
The addition of a drive-through of any kind in the city-center shopping area not only runs counter to the character of the city, it will add to traffic congestion. What will be next -- a liquor drive-through across the street? Since there is already a long-vacant bank space one block North of rte 38 in the center of town, the Market's verdict on the issue is plain enough. As all "survival of the fittest" schemes do, the Market works fine in the aggregate and over time. In her own bailiwick, Mother Nature deftly cleans up the residue, eventually. In the commercial world, the residue of a failed business plan is just more pollution -- visual, economic, cultural. In a community beset by ballooning debt due to a misrepresented school referendum, we cannot afford any more mistakes. The downtown area is already struggling to maintain it's solid commercial footing. Adding another stress-point could be the last straw. The Pure Gardener is a fine addition to the area. But another bank, with a drive-through? On State St.? Sheer lunacy.


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