Council member's proposal puts infill-over-sprawl issue back on Bloomington’s agenda
A proposal from Bloomington City Council member Jamie Mathy has re-energized a longstanding conversation about where new housing should go – on the edges of town, or closer to its core – and the financial implications of those decisions.
The City Council on Monday voted 6-3 to advance Mathy’s proposal to study ways to incentivize the remodeling of existing properties or new construction in in-fill areas in Bloomington’s historic core.
Bloomington-Normal needs more housing of all types, in part because of the thousands of new jobs Rivian dropped into the community almost overnight. Mathy wants to offer developers and property owners incentives if they choose to create that new or rehabbed housing in so-called Regeneration or Preservation zones identified in the city’s last comprehensive plan.
“If you do X, the City will do Y,” Mathy said. The city could, he said, agree to plant more trees, replace curbs, pay for sidewalks, or waive curb-cut fees if someone has to run a new sewer or water line to bring a property up to code.
“There’s a laundry list of things we could do, where we could help offset some of the cost so people could buy some of these older homes that have fallen into disrepair, go into them with a partnership with the city and the bank, and fix these places back up and make them safe and affordable housing again,” Mathy said.
Bloomington’s history includes a lot of sprawl, or growth on its edges where land was readily available. Mathy and others (including former Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner) have long argued that sprawl is fiscally dangerous, because it costs so much to provide basic city services. Mathy said subdivisions like The Grove on the far east side are money-losers in the long-term. Another impact: The city will have to build another east-side fire station at some point, Mathy said.
The Bloomington Planning Commission is expected to be involved in developing a list of options. Planning Commission chair Tyson Mohr said Mathy is “spot on (in saying) that sprawl is dangerous.”
“Unless we make some deliberate choices to change the way that we do things, we’re going to fall back into the well-worn development pattern we’ve been using for the last several decades. That’s a development pattern that’s bankrupted cities across the country,” Mohr said, noting that most of a city’s expenses are based on distance and area (such as police protection, streets, and sewers).
Mohr said there’s a ton at stake for the older neighborhoods that, on a map, generally wrap around Downtown Bloomington like a donut.
“When you’re posed with a choice between funding new construction on the periphery of the city, or funding construction on the inside of the city, the insides of the city have lost out,” Mohr said. “That’s resulted in people who don’t have the means to buy the new construction being put in a place where there’s disinvestment in their communities. You can think of it as sprawl extracting wealth from poorer communities to fund these newer communities.”
"Unless we make some deliberate choices to change the way that we do things, we’re going to fall back into the well-worn development pattern we’ve been using for the last several decades."Tyson Mohr, Bloomington Planning Commission chair
Among the ideas that Mohr expects the Planning Commission to look at are accessory dwelling units (a smaller unit on the same lot as a single-family home) and the process surrounding “upzoning,” or what it takes to increase the number of people living on your property (such as adding an apartment above a garage, or converting a home to a duplex).
Mohr said he'd be surprised if the Planning Commission doesn't start to see annexation proposals coming to it soon — potentially leading to more sprawl.
"It would behoove us to get our ducks in a row ahead of that happening," Mohr said. "To have a set of principles or policies that we could follow, and then apply to situations that come to us, we're going to be better prepared."
Bloomington City Manager Tim Gleason said next steps include coordination with the McLean County Regional Planning Commission. Gleason said there are people who want housing in that $125,000-150,000 range and would like to be closer to the city’s core. He said the city has a lot of options.
“This is an initiative I’m actually really excited about,” Gleason said.
Several other council members shared similar enthusiasm Monday night. Council Member Julie Emig, whose Ward 4 includes a lot of Preservation Zone property, said she was excited about it.
“This is a fantastic program to move people from rentals and homeless situations into ownership, which increases the health of our city overall,” said Council Member De Urban, whose west-side Ward 6 includes many Regeneration Zone properties. “I’m excited to see what the City can bring back to us.”
Voting “no” to advance Mathy’s proposal were Ward 2’s Donna Boelen; Ward 3’s Sheila Montney; and Ward 5’s Nick Becker.
Boelen said she’s generally supportive of regeneration and preservation efforts. But she said more upfront coordination is needed with groups like the Historic Preservation Commission, the West Bloomington Revitalization Project, and others.
“A lot of that needs to be coordinated before we start doing initiatives. That is my only concern,” Boelen said. “It’s not that I don’t support it, but I think we need to wait on this initiative until some of the groundwork is set.”