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Speed is of the essence in Market Street Parking Deck decision

Parking garage
Cindy Le
The Market Street Parking Deck in downtown Bloomington.

A lot of work has to happen quickly to determine whether the Market Street Parking Deck in downtown Bloomington will be a good fit for a Connect Transit bus transfer center.

The bus service announced a couple weeks ago it would no longer pursue a renovation of the old Pantagraph newspaper building because of high cost estimates.

City Manager Tim Gleason said he didn't count on the Market Street possibility being made public quite so soon. He said he needs to prep the council, but is in favor of exploring the possibility.

He said ongoing costs to repair the parking deck as a band-aid approach to keeping the facility open mean the city must soon make a decision whether to do major repairs, or tear it down for Connect Transit to use the space. He hopes for a decision within three to four months on how to proceed, adding he finds a transfer center an attractive option.

“I think it's a good move. We always have heard about elevation (making access and ADA compliance difficult). But in this day and time of engineering, I have got to believe we could take that northeast corner and the southeast corner and get those with accessibility challenges inside the building. In a new structure, you can have the ability to traverse that area and use that service,” Gleason said on WGLT's Sound Ideas.

The Market Street deck has about 550 parking places. A significant number of those would disappear if the site became a transfer center. Gleason thinks interim parking during construction would be a challenge. He said some businesses such as Heritage Enterprises, some law firms, and other businesses in the Illinois House building a block south of the deck are heavy users of the deck.

What happens after a transfer center would open is an easier problem to address.

“I'll give you a peek behind the curtain. Right now, that structure accommodates about 500, 550 total spaces; we use about 300 of those. We have just completed a parking study where we know our future needs are targeted somewhere in that 350 to 375 range," said Gleason.

"In the construction of the transfer station, there is the ability within the grant funds currently to build a parking deck above the transfer station itself there would be about 125 spaces. If the city partnered with and built a second structure on top of that, we're at 250. I think that I've gotten other opportunities in the north end of my downtown to have surface level parking that might accommodate 100, 150. And I'm right there at that study number that I think we need.”

He also posited that spreading out surface parking to two corners on the north end of downtown might create business traffic, or make it advantageous to parking users in the downtown.

At one time, there was talk about bundling a transfer center with the Bloomington Public Library. With the council approval of a library expansion at its current downtown location, that’s off the table. One of the purposes of involving another governmental unit would be to stimulate business traffic to the center and, perhaps more importantly, to attract more grant funding to build the facility.

“I think in the rebuilding, you're going to see accommodations made for the U.S. Postal Service. We don't want that convenience to the community to leave the downtown. We have always had on the table in these discussions about the transfer station, the question whether there an opportunity for the county or the city to partner. I think our space needs are pretty much met. We might consider going down that path. But I don't think it's a strong consideration at this point,” said Gleason.

He said the parking portion of the transfer center would likely belong to the city, though he would consider turning the entire property over to Connect Transit if sufficient public access would be assured. Gleason said he’s open to many options.

The end of Connect Transit consideration of the old Pantagraph building leaves open the question of redevelopment of that site.

Over the years, several ideas have been broached such as a boutique hotel or retrofitted condominiums. The Pantagraph building is on a main thoroughfare through town. A lot of motorists see it as well as the moribund former Montgomery Ward department store structure at Front and Center streets.

One of the selling points of the recently approved re-development agreement for the CII East building on northbound Main Street is that it was an eyesore that many people see. Gleason said he does not yet know how The Pantagraph building ranks on the list of buildings on the city priority list for targeted redevelopment.

“I don't know. But I'll tell you what's interesting is, you know, the town of Champaign has the same challenges in their downtown. They've not had sort of the leads or the opportunities that we have. I'm not quite sure what the next steps are going to be,” said he.

“We're trying to make ourselves available, anytime there's an opportunity or a conversation that might occur,” said Gleason.

He said one possibility to move those conversations forward is a beefier inspection regime for commercial buildings, something staff have worked on for a couple years and that is nearing readiness for council consideration in the next couple months.

“You can make the argument, not dissimilar to that car that you park out a barn, and then you walk away from it for three or four years. If you try to start the vehicle, there's going to be a cost to bring that back up to speed. These downtown buildings are still connected to city infrastructure. Even if the water may not be turned on, and they may not be flushing toilets or using the sewer system, there are some impacts to the infrastructure that the entire community is supporting,” said Gleason.

He said changing inspections from a complaint-driven process to something more proactive might be in the city's interest, adding only in extreme cases could that lead to demolition orders for decaying buildings.

“I think we owe it to the community, the downtown, and downtown investment. In these inspections, you would hope to drive compliance, and maybe step up interest from private property owners to try to either sell or renovate the property so that it can be put to productive use in the downtown,” said Gleason.

Such inspections also might be used to determine eligibility for potential future grant programs the city might create to refurbish interiors of buildings, or create ADA compliance in downtown structures, much as the city façade grant program works, Gleason said. He said elevators and sprinkler systems might be suitable cost-sharing projects that could help activate upper floors of buildings that already have first-floor businesses.

“It's exciting to start talking about the things that are prohibiting private property owners from developing these properties,” said Gleason. “I'm a glass half full guy, and always see the opportunity and the things that sometimes fall in our lap. Then sometimes I think it's our responsibility to go looking for things and trying to create opportunities.”

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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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