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Bloomington to consider transformational downtown streetscape vision

Two people walk in downtown Bloomington.
WGLT file photo
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The Bloomington City Council next month will begin consideration of a streetscape master plan for downtown that the city manager estimates could cost $25-$30 million.

Bloomington City Manager Tim Gleason estimates the price tag for a new downtown streetscape at $25-30 million. That's not to say anything like that has been decided, but now that the O'Neil Pool Project and the Bloomington Public Library expansion are under way, Gleason said it's time to pay a lot more attention to the city's core.

The city council next month will begin consideration of a master plan for such a change.

"I think the way you pay for that so that it doesn't take away from the existing revenues and the other projects and other vision items the council has, I think we consider TIFing the entire downtown," Gleason said on WGLT"s Sound Ideas.

A Tax Increment Financing District (TIF) uses increased property tax revenue from improvements and development within a designated and qualified area to reinvest in that area. He said the city would have to make sure the entire downtown is eligible for TIF.

Usually, school districts express some hesitancy about TIFs because they have to wait, sometimes for decades, to see growth in the property tax base while that money is being diverted to redevelopment. Gleason said the city has had early discussions with District 87 about the possibility of a downtown TIF, but would need to make sure the district doesn't lose property tax revenue if demand for its services grows.

Typically, he said downtown improvements do not crease a lot of new students for a school district. The city has shared TIF revenue with the district on at least one other TIF. He also said a TIF doesn't need to last the full 26 years allowed by state law. If redevelopment goals can happen in 13 years, Gleason said, perhaps the TIF can sunset then.

Gleason said the streetscape plan would slow traffic in downtown.

"Possibly narrow some of the downtown streets and make it more walkable, instead of narrow sidewalks where people have to move out of the way to make room for outdoor dining. And if things are more walkable, I think people are more likely to park in some of the parking that's provided, the parking decks,' said Gleason.

He said the city also could have a driver-less electric trolley system to encourage parking deck use. One company among several vendors Gleason is aware of is called Ollie's.

“I love the product. There are similar products out there. They can drive, make turns, whatever the programming is. But I just think (the city's needs are) quite simply north and south on two of our interior streets. And that gets everyone every place that they need to be in the downtown control, access to the downtown during certain hours,” said Gleason.

He said a full plan would take six to eight months to finalize, including public and stakeholder input, adding he would like to fold a discussion of downtown parking policy into the streetscape master plan. Parking rose as an issue recently when council members rejected a parking ticket amnesty program.

"Internally, we are looking at booting and more strict enforcement of parking violations. That really has not been the case at the City of Bloomington," said Gleason. "It's because of the leniency of the city. We have let people know we are not serious about enforcement. And I think they have taken advantage of that. And here we are sitting today with a problem that I have to fix."

Parking scofflaws in Bloomington have accumulated hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines from unpaid parking tickets. The top five owe a combined $60,000. All of the top 50 owe more than $1,000. Gleason said staff will now turn the worst offenders over to collections.

Some of the people on the list of offenders work at downtown businesses that have evening hours. They have told WGLT they have safety concerns about walking to the parking decks at the corners of the downtown.

“I think if I was one of those frequent fliers, I would come up with what sounds like a reasonable excuse as well,” said Gleason, adding the city facilities team is very aware of the concern about safety in the decks.

“And it's also something that the Bloomington Police Department is very aware of. I think the appearance of someone that is homeless can be startling to some people, but the aggressive nature, or the criminal offenses that might occur, those are rare. And always a 911 call away if anyone would feel like they're being threatened, or have those concerns that rise to that level the police will be there immediately,” said Gleason.

Gleason said he does not have a lot of sympathy for the chronic offenders, but also asserted the issue of parking policy is not one size fits all.

The city has not made a deep dive into parking policy since before the advent of mobile pay and app-based parking. Gleason said he likes the idea of mobile pay, though that choice belongs to the council.

That couples with a closely divided council decision to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to shore up the aging Market Street parking deck when Connect Transit may want to use the location as a bus transfer center. Gleason said the money is well spent because the timeline is at least two years no matter what happens to the parking deck.

He said if Connect Transit studies confirm the location is a good one for the transfer center, or if the city tears down the deck and puts up a new one, two years will be required to move ahead.

“The city has bought two years with that money,” said Gleason.

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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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