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Trail East Developer Abandons Uptown Normal Effort

architects rendering of the  original Trail East five story building, eventually reduced to four stories and now scuttled.
Town of Normal
The original Trail East proposal called for a five-story mixed use building, eventually was reduced to four stories, and now is scuttled.

The developer of the Trail East project in Uptown Normal has pulled out of the deal.

Bush Construction tells the town the time is not right to go ahead. This decision comes two months after the town council acceded to Bush requests to rework the design of the mixed-use structure to four instead of five stories and to revise the development agreement.

"As they continued work on their financing details, they realized it wasn't going to come together, not only because of financing but because of construction increases and market changes," said City Manager Pam Reece.

Reece said she is still optimistic the northeast corner of Uptown Circle is a desirable place for a mixed-use building.

"There continues to be interest in Uptown in terms of development. Bloomington-Normal and McLean County right now are seeing a lot of growth which is an economic driver in our community. There is significant interest in a residential component, and part of the Trail East project did include apartments or some residential component. And frankly, the tenants that had indicated they had a pre-lease agreement on the first three floors still, I believe, remain very interested in having a physical presence in Uptown," said Reece.

So far, Reece said the town has mainly expended staff time on the five-year effort that began with a request for proposal (RFP) in 2017. She said the town did not yet buried utility lines or transferred ownership of two buildings in the footprint of the project from the town to Bush Construction

"It does present a challenge and an opportunity for town staff to partner with Farnsworth Group and other potential tenants to see who we can bring to the table to get this done," said Reece.

She said the town will have to unwind the development agreement. After that, she will seek out other potential developers to talk about it. The road forward is not yet clear, and the town has time to evaluate next steps.

"We have to follow our procurement policy. So, I don't know if it requires another RFP because we issued a proposal way back in 2017. So we can see if either we can bring someone to the table and maybe we can assign the executed agreement, if that's possible, or maybe it goes back to issuing an RFP," said Reece.

One complication for any future developer is the mural on the external wall of one of the buildings within the footprint of the proposed new building. That was once the subject of a federal lawsuit filed by some of the artists who created the mural, who fought for its preservation. The lawsuit interrupted the project for a year or so, Reece said.

The town had agreed to move the wall and the mural before building demolition and site clearing for Trail East. Then, Bush Construction redesigned its plan to include the existing wall. Reece said she hopes the wall will go inside any future development.

"It does present challenges in terms of construction, but I think that was a good solution. Relocating the mural, while it can be done, is incredibly costly and presents construction challenges in and of itself. So, I am hopeful we can find a way to retain it in place," said Reece.

WGLT also asked Reece whether that will be a limiting factor in finding a new developer.

"I'm confident that any developer that is going to come to the table now is going to want to make sure that does not continue to become a lawsuit. The writing is on the wall, figuratively and literally, that anybody who talks about Trail East certainly knows about that mural issue. It has been a very public conversation," said Reece.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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