Monthly Archives: August 2009

The unwanted water feature tells me it’s time to redefine a major Uptown project

Unplanned water feature -- The Town of Normal is exploring renewed development interest in the stalled One Main building.   I believe the Normal Town Council owes it to the citizens of the community to the business owners who have invested in Uptown Normal to begin a public dialogue about what we expect this foundation to become.

Unplanned water feature -- The Town of Normal is exploring renewed development interest in the stalled One Main building. I believe the Normal Town Council owes it to the citizens of the community and to the business owners who are invested in Uptown Normal to begin a public dialogue about what we expect this foundation to become.

 

My immediate concern is that pumps be installed to rid this nearly two-year old foundation of water from the recent heavy rains.

Then,  real soon, we’ve got to sit down and discuss what we want to see here and what we want to see develop along Constitution Blvd.

Because two years of inactivity can’t be allowed to turn into a third or a fourth year.    

There is so much positive happening in Normal.   And I’m proud of the tremendous progress we’re making.   With every passing week, we are seeing more and more life in Uptown.   The trees that were planted this past week beautify the street scape.   People attending the Sweet Corn Festival could tell the plan is coming together.

But we can’t stand still.   This flooded foundation can not be allowed to be a millstone around the neck of Uptown.

We got to figure out what we want here.  Because the economy has changed commercial real estate lending, not just for the near term, but arguably for the foreseeable future.   The project the council and community envisioned here —  a six-story, LEEDs certified,  mixed use building with restaurants, retailers, offices, and owner-occupied condos is questionable.  

Fortunately, there is some genuine interest in a scaled down project that keeps Commerce Bank as a major tenant.   It’ is a very exciting possibility and one that the majority of the residents of this community would support.   Instead of six stories, it might be four.   

I believe we need to address the future of this project sometime this year.   The clock on the TIF district is ticking, and if we are going to continue to pay back the Uptown bonds in a comfortable fashion, we do not have the luxury of waiting indefinitely.

We need development that generates economic activity, not an empty foundation on taxpayer-owned property collecting water.

In the days following the 2003 election, the Normal Town Council demonstrated leadership to sit down and redefine the most significant project in the redevelopment of our community’s central business district.   The privately-owned Marriott Hotel and Conference center will be an economic engine for decades to come.   

No question, Uptown Normal is changing the definition.

To me, two years of inactivity with the potential for a third or fourth year of inactivity on an important and visible location represents another urgent situation that requires leadership and immediate attention.

I look forward to working with my colleagues on the council to help redefine a major project.

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Filed under Marriott Hotel and Conference Center, One Main, TIF, Town Council, Uptown Normal

Sweet Corn Sweet Blues fill the streets on Day One

It was great to see so many people yesterday on the new streets of Uptown, chomping on sweet corn and listening to the blues.

That’s what happens when you get perfect weather.  We couldn’t have ordered it up any better. 

A perfect day for Sweet Corn and Sweet Blues drew a sweet crowd to Uptown Normal.

A perfect day for Sweet Corn and Sweet Blues drew a sweet crowd to Uptown Normal.

The College Avenue parking deck was full, the streets were full, and they could barely husk the sweet corn fast enough for long lines of attendees paying a mere $1 for three lip smackin’ fantastic ears.

We took advantage of the opportunity to stop by the Normal CornBelters’ booth and to buy baseball caps to support our new team.  Other purchases were made as well.  It’s amazing how a buck’s worth of sweet corn can end up emptying your wallet.

I recognize that construction crews need to work every available day, but I was surprised to see end loaders and semis working so close to the throng of people atttending the festival.   Hopefully, they’ll take a well deserved day off today.

The festival lasts until the corn runs out.   See you out there.

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Filed under Just About Normal Polls, Uptown Normal

The case against rezoning 1010 South Main St. for serious student housing

When I heard that someone wanted to purchase the University Cinemas at 1010 South Main for redevelopment, I was intrigued.  

While the dollar theater concept seems to be working well in today’ s down economy, as evidenced by all of the cars in the parking lot Sunday night, clearly a small dollar theater could not be a viable long term economic model in today’s era of megaplex theaters, stadium seating, digital surround sound, and the like.  Evidently, the land has been on the market for awhile.  

A single, 550-foot long, four-story building would run the length of the University Cinemas property from the railroad tracks, south to Cullom Street.  Developers 1010 S. Main LLC plan 198 parking spaces in the rear for the 350 bedrooms.   Planners suggest that northbound ISU traffic will leave the area on Cullom and Main Street or using Church and University Streets.   Residents are concerned that apartment residents will find other routes to ISU, through Hovey, Payne Place, Florence, Hester, and Fell.

Serious Student Housing -- A single, 550-foot long, four-story building would run the length of the University Cinemas property from the railroad tracks, south to Cullom Street. Developers 1010 S. Main LLC plan 198 parking spaces in the rear for the 350 bedrooms. Planners suggest that northbound ISU traffic will leave the area on Cullom and Main Street or using Church and University Streets. Residents are concerned that apartment residents will find other routes to ISU, through Hovey, Payne Place, Florence, Hester, and Fell.

Given the location of the property and its Main St. frontage, surely someone would have a creative mixed-use idea for redevelopment — one that would generate economic activity, compliment the neighborhood, and be a catalyst for similar projects.

So, I attended the public hearing with fairly high expectations, listened carefully to the discussion and was underwhelmed by what was being planned. 

As usual, it was a plan designed to fit as many student apartment units onto the property as possible. 

It was not particularly creative and certainly will act as a catalyst, if approved.

What is not surprising is that residents of the surrounding single-family neighborhood also view this as a tipping point event.   Their numerous emails and phone calls have been passionate and rational.  Among other things they are concerned about what will be left if this area is rezoned, opening the door for it to become the next big place for student housing expansion.    Here is an example of the feedback we’ve received:

I have seen on a daily basis the increase of traffic when ISU is in session. I can only suppose if another high density complex were to exist in this area the amount of traffic would increase. I feel the small children living in our neighborhood are at risk already from those who do not feel the need to obey the speed limit through our neighborhood. I also feel allowing another high density complex would have a domino effect for the area immediately surrounding the area. I can forsee homeowners electing to sell and investors buying the property, tearing down homes and putting up yet more complexes. As a home owner I am also concerned with maintaining my property value. I feel that the close proximity of high density apartment will not be beneficial. I am passionate about preserving our older neighborhoods and protecting them from demolition. I am aware that there will always be issues living near campus and I am willing to accept them, but I feel strongly about this issue and felt the need to express my strong opposition.

 

I agree that this proposed rezoning and redevelopment plan represents a turning point for the fragile neighborhood to the east.   The outpouring of neighborhood opposition demonstrates to me that nearby homeowners are fully invested in maintaining what they have, a nice affordable single family area close to ISU, IWU, BroMenn, and Glenn Elementary School.   

The council has invested resources in the area south of Vernon, purchasing and tearing down a problem fraternity, promoting the development of two Habitiat developments, and insisting on quality planning and development on both sides of Vernon. 

On top of that, we have declared the neighborhood south of Vernon  be a “no new student housing zone.”  

A row of five homes along Cullom, just west of University Street at the southeast corner of the proposed development.

A row of five homes along Cullom, just west of University Street at the southeast corner of the proposed development.

I believe rezoning this land and accepting this plan would contradict our efforts to the east.
As part of our 2009 planning retreat, the Normal Town Council asked staff to develop a plan that anticipates the loss of residence halls at the University, but we have yet to see that plan and have yet to discuss in any formal way where this community wants future student housing to be located.
 
Based on the limited discussion I heard at the planning commission meeting, the Council needs to engage planning commissioners in this process as well before we move ahead with a development of this size and likely impact.
This does not have to be an involved planning process that requires outside help.  Everyone involved in Normal Town government understands the issues involved in student-oriented multiple family zoning.  There’s a myriad of informal policies out there.
Before more residence halls go down, and more student-oriented complexes are built, let’s get a formal policy on paper.
 
We want it close to campus doesn’t really capture it for me.
 
Again, my immediate concern is the expansion of the footprint of multiple family housing into new areas.

There is multiple family zoning south of University and Hovey, but no buildings of this magnitude — a proposed 550-ft. long, four-story building with 350 bedrooms inside 2-, 3-, and 4-bedroom units.   Because there is no party deck, volleyball court, or balconies, the developers claim it will appeal to the “serious student,” a claim that invoked laughter in the council chambers when a resident asked how the developers plan to screen for serious students.  

There are plans for on-site security and property maintenance, which now come up so frequently as approval enticements that we ought to make them mandatory for developments over a certain number of residents.

I find it interesting how eager everyone associated with project wants to make it a Main Street Corridor project.  For those who place a very high priority on public acceptance of the stalled Main Street Corridor planning process and form-based code:   Is this what the Main Street Corridor reallyenvisions?  Is this how you want to get off the ground by expanding Normal’s already enormous footprint of student-oriented multiple family housing?

I don’t doubt the sincerity or integrity of the development team or even their desire to build a quality project.  They are attempting to jump through all of the hoops.  I recognize the limitations of the site, but jamming as many beds into one long building doesn’t seen like a proper fit for the property and defintely not for the neighborhood.   I challenge them to come up with alternative that maintains the current zoning.

I think we owe it to this neighborhood to not leap at the first high density multiple family proposal that fits on the site.  

Let’s study the market, figure out where we really want student-oriented multiple family housing, and in what densities.  

Let’s take our time and get it right.

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Filed under Development, Illinois State University, Main Street, planning, Uncategorized, Zoning

Welcome Back, Students!

Welcome back students!

You’re a big part of the community, and when you go away it kind of gets quiet around here.    Too quiet.

Okay, we’ll admit there are a few advantages.  For a short time, some of us find it easier to get into eat in some of your favorite places like Chili’s and Avanti’s.   It’s easier to find a space in the Noodles parking lot.   In the summer, driving around campus seems like less of a obstacle course.   We just have to dodge the construction cones on College.

In fact, just about the time we get used to you being gone, like clockwork you return.

"Okay, how are we going to get the rest of this stuff upstairs?"

"Okay, how are we going to get the rest of this stuff upstairs?"

Many of us older folks recognize that you are an indespensible part of this community, a part that makes Normal a lot more dynamic and interesting.   We recognize that you are reason why we’ve got ISU, Heartland, Lincoln, and IWU in this community.  Your very presence and pursuit of academic excellence keeps thousands employed.  

The dollars you spend represent a big chunk of the local economy; the labor you provide keeps our service industry humming, and the taxes all of you pay –and the fines some of you pay– help provide services for you and your fellow Normalites.

Students add a lot to the fabric of this community.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.    Our kids and grandkids love it when you help them read at the library or serve as their after school counselors.

An ISU student moves his belongings into Watterson Towers Sunday afternoon in preparation for fall semsester classes at Illinois State University.  As usual, Normal Police report that student move-in went like clockwork, due to the great amount of planning and communication.

An ISU student moves his belongings into Watterson Towers Sunday afternoon in preparation for fall semsester classes at Illinois State University. As usual, Normal Police report that student move-in went like clockwork, due to the great amount of planning and communication.

Normal wouldn’t be Normal without you.   

I’m not sure what we’d be.   And I don’t want to think about either!

By the way, we’re happy when you stick around, take a permanent job, and choose to raise a family here.

But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves.

Let’s just say it’s good to just have you back.

Welcome Home!   

And join us for an ear or two of sweet corn in Uptown Normal next weekend.

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Filed under Illinois State University

Bike ped plan gives Normal Town Council room to manuver

Despite our  best intentions, some planning documents seem destined to be filed away or placed on a shelf to collect dust from the moment they are published and publicly presented.

Others seem to beg to be implemented in some way, almost immediately after the ink is dry.  IMG_1661

Two weeks ago, the Normal Town Council received the Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan from Portland, Oregon-based Alta Planning and Design.   It checks in at more than 200 pages and is filled with excellent information and maps.   It is chocked full of recommendations.  

But most importantly, Alta clearly spent the time here needed to get a great feel for the community.  They make some intuitive recommendations about how we can make Normal more pedestrian and bicycle friendly. 

After spending time here walking, riding, and talking to people who do it every day, they recognized it’s next to impossible to walk or bike ride across Veteran’s Parkway. 

They discovered the  places where the trail crosses busy streets leaving walkers, runners, and cyclists waiting for breaks in traffic.

The consutlants detected there are intersections that ought to be much more pedestrian friendly than they are. 

In his presentation, Rory Renfro said repeatedly that “Constitution Trail is the backbone of a great system”  in Normal.  Who would disagree with that?  

While he seemed to be stating the obvious, what he was really saying is that we tend to focus completely on Constitution Trail and there are so many more places cyclists want to ride and lots of point A’s and B’s that aren’t necessarily along the trail.  

Renfro explained to us why Normal needs on-street connections to get to the trail.  In fact,  he pointed out that Normal has the potential of developing a network of more than 70 miles of on-street bike trails.  He also said that in Normal there is tremendous opportunity to work with the existing pavement to make our streets more friendly for cyclists.

There are plenty of diagrams showing what could be done.  What really made sense to me was that so much could be done to improve the present conditions that don’t seem to be terribly costly. 

 A lot of it simply involves designating bike routes with signs and pavement markings.   Instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to add new segments to Constitution Trail, in areas that are inaccessible to most of the community, we could spend considerably less to turn existing streets into bike routes.

Past citizen surveys reveal that Constitution Trail is the community’s most used and beloved public park.   But there are challenges.

IMG_1671

Some of the questions I have:

  • Should the Normal Police Department conduct  “stings” to ticket motorists who ignore people in crosswalks, particularly children?  
  •  Is it time to focus resources on making streets –arterials and side streets — more amenable to bicycle traffic by posting signs to designate routes and creating bike lanes with pavement markings?
  • What’s a bigger priority:  more miles of Constitution Trail or making connections to the trail?
  • What more can be done to make Uptown Normal more hospitable for pedestrians?   Should the council ban bikes on sidewalks?
  • What kind of public education is required to make Normal safer for pedestrians and cyclists?

As someone who was not expecting to be overwhelmed, I admit I was both surprised by the depth of the study and impressed with the recomendations.    In the weeks following the report’s release, I have been contacted by a number of people who have expressed their expectation to see some action. 

Pedestrian and Bicycle Focus Group chair Doug Oehler told the council on July 20 that the plan provides an “opportunity to change the transportation culture of the Town forever.”   

No question.  But before any action is taken, the council must consider the path forward in the context of available resources and against a myriad of competiing priorities.

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Filed under Constitution Trail, NPD, Town Council, Transportation, Uptown Normal, Veteran's Parkway

We may be Normal, but we sure aren’t Boring

This is easy.  Community pride is at stake.    Normal’s got to win the Toshiba contest.  

To cast your vote, here’s the link.    Vote Button

There are also some good videos of our creative contestants.   The winning community receives a $15,000 technology grant for their local school district.

So far, we’re ahead 55-45, but you can’t take anything for granted.

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Filed under Uncategorized