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Bloomington group offers a solution to the housing shortage, and it's not new subdivisions

North Main Street downtown Bloomington
This image shows a superimposed outline of buildings that existed in 1907 in downtown Bloomington. The area is now a private parking lot.

Housing developments have been sprouting up and in around Bloomington-Normal to address a housing shortage.

But a group interested in urban planning says new subdivisions are not the answer.

Noah Tang, a history teacher at Bloomington High School, founded the Bloomington Revivalists. He said the group believes economic vitality and environmental sustainability don't have to be at odds with one another.

Noah Tang
Noah Tang

Tang said urban sprawl comes at a steep cost. “When you have all these subdivisions that are very spread out (from) each other, the city is going to have to pay more for the roads, pay more for the sewers, water lines and things like that,” he said.

Speaking on WGLT's Sound Ideas, Tang noted the city of Bloomington recently modified rules to make it easier to build an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) on your property to house a relative.

“If you have a big backyard and you didn’t want to put grandmother into a home, you can build a small cottage out back,” Tang explained. “This is a very big trend we see in the east coast and west coast especially, places where the housing market is hurting.”

Bloomington-Normal has its own housing shortage. A recent study showed the community is more than 4,000 homes short of demand, following a hiring surge by Rivian and other employers.

The city’s zoning rules still limit the types of residential areas where you can build a detached rental unit on your property.

Tang said many communities have struggled to find creative ways to spur housing development within existing residential areas.

“Sometimes, you have instances of just copying examples from other places,” said Tang, referring to urban planners. “We just don’t think critically and then what happens?”

Bloomington Revivalists wants to steer the community away from a car-centric culture, a key concept espoused by Strong Towns, a nonprofit media advocacy organization the revivalists endorse.

A superimposed image shows where the former Bloomington City Hall was located in downtown in 1950.
A superimposed image shows where the former Bloomington City Hall was located in downtown in 1950.

Parking garages in downtown Bloomington take up prime real estate for businesses, said Tang, who recreated a map of downtown Bloomington in 1907 and superimposed old buildings where parking lots replaced them “just to show what we have lost in the community for the convenience of parking.”

Tang said he’s encouraged to see the downtown expand outdoor dining at the expense of some parking spaces, a strategy born out of necessary because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tang said the revivalists also want to see what they call more equitable downtown development. He said many aspiring business owners lack the capital to pay high rent and remodeling costs and occupy a large business space. He said smaller, shareable spaces such as a booth in a public market would “lower the barrier for economic participation.”

Tang said the group’s next steps may be to build its own ADUs or find infill development.

The group has attracted interest from across the political spectrum, he said, because of its focus on restoring property rights, reducing government costs and protecting the environment by reducing the reliance on cars.

“It’s a very interesting assemblage of people,” Tang observed.

The revivalists have a social meeting planned at 1 p.m. Saturday at Keg Grove Brewing, 712 E. Empire St., Bloomington.

Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.