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Bloomington mayor discusses downtown redevelopment preferences

The building at Front and Center in downtown Bloomington has languished for years for want of a firm redevelopment or demolition proposal.

The discussion over a potential Connect Transit bus transfer center on the site of the current city-owned parking deck on Market Street opens a couple of possibilities for the city.

It could get out of the parking business and turn the whole thing over to the transit system with the understanding some parking would be for public use. Or it could partner with Connect Transit and continue to own a parking facility built on top of the transfer center.

Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe said he’s not thrilled with parking decks.

“Personally, I'm not a big fan of those. They cost quite a bit of money. But also aesthetically, they're not necessarily the most pleasing things,” Mwilambwe said on WGLT's Sound Ideas.

If the Market Street site is chosen, Connect Transit plans have included some parking. City Manager Tim Gleason has said another parking structure could be built on top of that, which the city could own. Coupled with surface parking at other corners of downtown, that could supply enough to meet the 375 spaces a city parking study suggests would be needed for the foreseeable future. Gleason said the existing parking deck rents out about 350 spaces of its 550-space capacity.

Mwilambwe expressed some hesitancy about taking on ownership of a parking structure.

“Something like that would have to be financed through bonds. Within the next few years, we are going to get some pretty significant debt off the books. At that point, we might have a little bit more flexibility. But again, I'm just not a big fan of parking structures, especially these big decks. I think when you start to get above $10 million, there's a lot of maintenance that will come with it, down the road, and it makes me feel a little bit uneasy,” said Mwilambwe.

He said he might prefer that Connect Transit handle the project on its own without city participation — using federal funds, if possible.

“That would be great, then the city can focus on other things. Yeah,” said Mwilambwe.

Mwilambwe said he’s in favor of Connect Transit retaining a post office branch in the transfer center if the talks move forward. He said that does not appear to be an issue with either the bus service or downtown business owners. He also applauds the plan to have retail space in the center.

“As they say, the devil is in the details. You never know, if you will conclude the Market Street garage is not the right place to be for Connect Transit. Some folks have also suggested being further up, closer to the Law and Justice Center,” said Mwilambwe.

That location could be the Front and Center building, once a Montgomery Ward Department store, then subdivided into small shops, and finally mothballed after redevelopment efforts fizzled amid financial issues as asbestos and other infrastructure issues halted its use.

“This is just conversation you hear because people feel like the Law and Justice Center is a big center of activity,” said Mwilambwe.

He said the slope and potential access issues of the Market Street site might be another reason to look at the Front & Center building location.

Connect Transit’s abandonment of consideration of the former Pantagraph newspaper building as a potential transfer leaves the future of that shuttered building in limbo. The Front & Center building has been moribund for years. The nearby former Mennonite/Brokaw hospital location has been cleared and there have been nibbles of interest from potential redevelopers, but Mwilambwe said there are no firm prospects at the moment.

Now that the city has inked a redevelopment agreement for the downtown CII East building, Mwilambwe said his top priority for attention is probably the Front & Center location, though he noted the order of play depends on viable proposals.

“My view is that those buildings that are more of an eyesore need to be addressed because it's just not a very good look. And it certainly does not encourage others to come and bring their businesses downtown,” said Mwilambwe. “I do not want any of those buildings to sit empty. Whatever we can do within the downtown plan, I think would be helpful. And I think we'll eventually get there.”

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