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Grocery store is high on the wish list in public input for Uptown South's future

A grocery store in the middle of a “food desert” around Illinois State University, and an emphasis on smaller businesses and buildings, topped public input Thursday night on possible design plans for Uptown South.

The feedback — much of it from Illinois State University students — came during a Zoom meeting to solicit public input about the future of the 8.3-acre property south of the railroad tracks. The meeting also saw Farr Associates present findings of an online survey earlier this month on potential uses for the tract.

One acre of the land will be part of the pedestrian underpass below the railroad tracks in Uptown. There also will be a park and outdoor amphitheater space. State and federal grants will fund more than 90% of that $23 million project.

For the rest, survey results point to a mixed-use space with limited vehicle traffic. Respondents preferred medium-sized or even small buildings over large buildings that would dominate entire blocks. A grocery store topped desired amenities, followed by a restaurant and retail.

The Uptown South area, just south of the tracks and the main development area of Uptown Normal.
Farr Associates
The Uptown South area, just south of the tracks and the main development area of Uptown Normal.

Doug Farr, the founding principal of the architectural firm contracted to design the area, suggested these smaller buildings and green spaces were in line with his firm’s thoughts.

He said restaurants might be best concentrated in the Uptown area on the north side of the tracks. But depending on the results of an ongoing market study, the prospect for a full-service grocery store isn’t great.

But several ISU students attending the session said however difficult, a grocery should be a must.

“ISU is currently in a food desert. … People can’t walk, like, two miles in the middle of their busy schedules to go get groceries,” said ISU student Avery Spranger.

ISU student body president Patrick Walsh agreed.

“ISU is home to over 20,000 students and many of those students stay at school without a vehicle,” he said. “While there are those public transportation options, the hassle of carrying all their groceries on the bus or an Uber can be cumbersome.”

Other students noted a closer option would allow students to better prepare for inclement weather.

Seth Wheeler, a lifelong Normal resident who ran Babbitt’s Books from 2015-18, said Uptown’s success is built on smaller businesses such as Acme Comics, North Street Records, Waiting Room Records and the Garlic Press. Meanwhile, bigger, “monolithic” buildings sit partially vacant.

“You really have to evaluate what exactly it was that made Uptown successful," he said. "Was it the idea of these huge monolithic developments, or was it the character, the customer service, the personality of our small shops and our owner operators?"

Farr presented three preliminary options for the layout of the space: A cloister, where the park area was mostly surrounded by buildings; a square that was more open; and a plaza that was somewhere in between. All the designs were preliminary, and officials invited input on those designs, as well.

Normal town planner Mercy Davison said 814 residents responded to the survey, and 19 — including several ISU students — were on Thursday's Zoom call.

Both town officials and Farr associates were pleased with the public input, and described it as an iterative process where residents could truly influence the results.

Next steps will include working with town staff and public information sessions, likely in the next couple of months. Details of the presentation and survey will be available on Normal’s website.

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Local News Uptown NormalIllinois State UniversityFood Desert
Jim Stahly Jr. is a correspondent with WGLT. He joined the station in 2022.
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