Magazine honors Springfield neighborhood

Monday, January 25, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST

SPRINGFIELD — Few areas in Springfield have the quirky but quaint feel of the Phelps Grove neighborhood, and now a national publication has taken notice.

Southern Living magazine has named the Phelps Grove area one of the top 10 comeback neighborhoods of the South.

"You don't see that kind of cohesive, tight-knit grass-roots coming together, but that's the way it should be," said Rex Perry, building editor for Southern Living. "It's a great example of what neighbors can do when they work together."

The Phelps Grove neighborhood, just south of the Missouri State University campus, is centrally located in the city, with large, mature trees lining the roads and shading the arts-and-crafts-style houses.

"I love it in the spring and in the fall, driving through it, because there are so many flowering trees,"said Rhonda Kincaid, co-owner of Head Rage, a hair salon in the neighborhood. "It seems to be a cozy little environment."

But just a few years ago, this neighborhood wasn't such a quiet place to live.

Terry Rowland, a homeowner for 27 years and president of the Phelps Grove Neighborhood Association, said the residents struggled with irresponsible renters, flooding from MSU parking lots and issues with the city.

He said the areas closest to the university began to see an influx of student renters, and the quiet neighborhood soon became party central.

Andy Faucett, co-owner of Bambino's, a restaurant in the neighborhood, grew up near where he now serves up signature Italian food every day.

He recalled what the area was like when he was in school, working at the building that would later become his restaurant.

"There was a lot of coming in on Saturday mornings and picking up a lot of beer cans," he said. "I would have to go up to other people's yards and clean up some of their party leftovers."

Rowland described yards so full of beer cans and bottles that grass wasn't visible.

There were other issues caused by the proximity to the university — most of them parking related. MSU students are required to pay for parking, but Rowland said many students started parking in their neighborhood to avoid that cost. "You literally couldn't get into your own driveway," he said.

And the parking lots themselves also caused a problem. When it rained, all the water from the lots drained directly into the neighborhood.

It was out of these issues the Phelps Grove Neighborhood Association was born 20 years ago.

After years of compromise and conflict, the neighborhood association put together a planning package for where they wanted the neighborhood to be and eventually got the university and city officials on board.

Several ordinances resulted from discussions between the three parties, including requiring parking permits in the area, creating a green-space buffer between the MSU parking lots and the neighborhood that properly catches water, and other ordinances about trash pickup and the number of occupants to a house.

"People don't realize how far we've come," Rowland said.

Rowland, who now works for the university as an architect, said there are still plans going forward and more improvements to be made, but most of the residents have returned to a sense of pride about the area.

He also insisted the neighborhood is a mix of people and cultures, and that students are welcome.

"People say 'students' and they try to lump them all in to one (group), and that's not fair at all," he said. "We've had some terrific students, and some no one wanted to live next to. The key is to find that balance to make it work."

Rowland rents three of the properties near his home, and said some of his favorite renters have been students.

He was a young guy himself when he first visited the neighborhood.

He remembered fondly two elderly women on their porch smoking, drinking and inviting him to come and talk.

"I thought, 'I like this neighborhood,'" he said.

Faucett said the area has turned into a good mix of cultures.

"It's just one of those neighborhoods where you get a little bit of everything and people do seem to get along," he said.

In fact, Faucett said he has a friend who is looking to move to Springfield — but only if he can find a house in Phelps Grove. Perry said he first heard about the neighborhood from a resident who was proud of how far the area had come.

Perry is a self-proclaimed "neighborhood junkie," and saw the resident's posting about Phelps Grove on a online message board.

"That's something you don't hear often, someone who's really into neighborhoods," he said, laughing.

Perry said he was in town for business and took a quick drive through the neighborhood.

"I was just so pleasantly surprised," he said.

After contacting Rowland, Perry heard about the history of where Phelps Grove had come from.

He said he was impressed with how well the neighborhood came together and what a cohesive community it was, so he decided it belonged on the upcoming neighborhood list.

Perry said it was the first year of compiling this top 10 list, but the response has been strong enough to make it an annual staple in the magazine.

Both Rowland and Faucett said the people have been what has restored the pride in the neighborhood.

"We've had a really good run of people moving into the neighborhood and respecting the neighborhood," Faucett said.

Rowland said the future of the neighborhood is promising. Construction projects ranging from a small room addition to entire houses line nearly every street.

The neighborhood has been around since the early 1900s, and while there are no ordinances dictating the design of the homes, an overwhelming majority still retain an old-time feel — even if they've been renovated or are brand new.

"I really like seeing how people are investing in the area," he said.

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