An upstart Springfield organization has accelerated upgrading urban spaces this fall to address the public’s COVID-19 concerns.
It’s called Better Block SGF. The idea is just as it sounds – a group intent on improving areas viewed as underused or inactive, one block at a time.
One of its projects transformed a single parallel parking space into a micropark, complete with faux grass, plants and a coffee station. Its purpose was to raise awareness for the value and need for increased green space in an urban environment.
“Springfield could really use something like this, an organization and a platform that people can voice their ideas and concerns in the community,” said Addison Jones, who led efforts to start the organization last year.
Jones said projects have been on the rise in recent months.
“Most of that has been a response to COVID-19 and restrictions that have been put on businesses limiting their occupancy in the restaurants,” he said of creating outdoor dining areas in front of several downtown restaurants. “It’s not just for people to sit, but an enjoyable and quality public space that adds to the quality of our downtown environment.”
Better Block added outdoor seating in mid-October at Nonna’s Italian Cafe, and advised St. Michael’s Sports Bar & Grill and Finnegan’s Wake on utilizing their shared patio space, said Jones, who works as a design associate with Dake Wells Architecture Inc.
Additionally, the group installed a “parklet” in front of downtown restaurant Druff’s in August that utilizes a couple of parking spaces. Jones said the installation recently expanded to add seating.
The project required a temporary encroachment on right of way permit from the city, Jones said, noting some other installations have needed special use permits.
Druff’s co-owner Vance Hall said about 15 people can sit outside the restaurant. It has a 45-person indoor seating capacity, which is currently limited to 50% occupancy due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“We’re going to leave it up for as long as we can,” he said of the outdoor installation, noting the eatery recently purchased outdoor heaters. “We’ve been able to get somewhere close to normal capacity, which has been incredibly helpful.”
While the outdoor seating has contributed to sales, Hall declined to estimate the financial impact.
Rusty Worley, executive director of the Downtown Springfield Association, said Better Block’s projects provide a needed relief for restaurant owners who have been dealing with a lot on their plates since the pandemic’s arrival.
“What we’ve seen are our small businesses have been so focused on trying to get through this current crisis that it’s been hard for them to be able to focus on new initiatives like expanded outdoor dining,” he said.
Druff’s project was made possible through donations by ForeverLawn and Meek’s Lumber Co., Jones said, as well as ordinances passed in the summer by City Council to allow businesses more flexibility in using public spaces.
Donations have been essential for the organization, Jones said, as the group’s efforts are 100% by volunteers.
“We don’t have any kind of sustainable funding right now to have any staff or representation,” he said.
Jones, along with Karen Spence, Robert Weddle, David Derossett and Marcus Aton, form the organization’s leadership team. The group is seeking approval from the Missouri secretary of state’s office on its articles of incorporation as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
Spence, associate dean at Drury University’s Hammons School of Architecture, said volunteers from college students to senior citizens are handling the projects – spaces for outdoor meetings, dining and activities, such as miniature golf.
“It seems like businesses in the community know that these activities benefit everyone and help with what they’re trying to do,” she said, noting cash, sponsorships and in-kind donations have funded the grassroots effort.
Officials estimate roughly $2,500 in financial and material donations has been accrued since Better Block’s first project in September 2019. That installation was held in conjunction with Park(ing) Day, a nationally recognized event on the third Friday of every September since 2005. The one-day project transformed a parking spot on Walnut Street into a green space to show its value for people rather than cars.
Better Block SGF is an unofficial chapter of Dallas-based nonprofit Better Block Foundation, started in 2015 with the intent of reimagining public spaces to improve the city’s quality of place. Its projects include creating a disc golf course at Oak Farms in Dallas and a mural for local business Southern Maid Donuts, according to its website.
Jones said the Dallas organization inspired him and gave approval to model the local group on it. Kansas City has the only official chapter at this time, he said.
Safety in mind
Improving safety also is part of Better Block’s goals, Spence said. The organization partnered with the city on a temporary crosswalk at South Avenue and Pershing Street last fall to improve pedestrian safety and traffic sight lines. Jones said the city is using some of the project’s ideas with the plan to permanently revise the intersection in the next year.
Safety has been front and center amid the pandemic, as residents have sought more outdoor options in recent months, Jones said. That spurred this month’s creation of community laboratory space in front of the Park Central Branch Library. It provides an outdoor alternative to hosting in-person meetings downtown.
“We love to collaborate if at all possible with the downtown entities,” said Jim Schmidt, the Springfield-Greene County Library District’s associate director.
Schmidt said the co-lab fills a need for the downtown branch, which opened in 2008 next to The Coffee Ethic.
“That’s one of the things we don’t have at the Park Central branch is a dedicated community room or conference room like we do at many of our other locations,” he said. “An outdoor conference or meeting area is a fantastic idea and a way to do so safely.”
A sense of collaboration in the downtown community has been pervasive for the past decade or so, Schmidt said.
“This is just another example of that – where we all try to do all we can to promote the downtown area,” he said.
While Spence and Jones said Better Block’s projects have focused on downtown, the group is willing to help all over Springfield. For example, an upcoming project dubbed Swing Vote will have a swingset on-site outside a polling location at JQH Arena Nov. 3. Better Block Foundation did a similar project in 2019.
“It’ll be set up on Election Day and just be a fun activity and photo op for people to show their participation as voters,” Jones said. “Hopefully, it’ll kind of lighten the mood of a very heavy election year.”
Spence said Better Block is interested in outreach events and wants to be a resource for residents seeking to develop their own ideas to make Springfield a better place to live and work.
“We’re not just limiting it to downtown interventions or something like that,” she said. “It’s anywhere that the community sees a need.”
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