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Bloomington council OKs 17-building apartment plan; tackles vacant properties

The Bloomington City Council meets Monday, Feb. 13, 2023, at the downtown Government Center.
Michele Steinbacher
The Bloomington City Council meets Monday, Feb. 13, 2023, at the downtown Government Center.

The Bloomington City Council on Monday OK’d preliminary plans to create a 17-building apartment complex off Ireland Grove Road, as developers continue scrambling to meet growing workforce housing demands.

Also at the meeting, the council approved a new ordinance creating a registry to address vacant commercial properties, authorized spending nearly $2.5 million of federal COVID-relief funding on summer road projects, and reversed an earlier decision on hiring a federal lobbying firm.

Amending city code regarding the vacant properties is a long time coming, City Manager Tim Gleason said after the meeting. It’s been part of community conversations at least since he was hired in 2018, he said.

“Some are more prominent than others. But you can’t just focus on one area. This is a problem that’s throughout the community,” he said, adding the change isn’t intended as a punitive program. Rather, he said, it aims to connect property owners with resources to resolve issues.

The meeting was at the downtown Government Center in Bloomington. Meetings are livestreamed on the city's YouTube channel, but technical difficulties resulted in the video playing with no audio. The city later released a corrected recording.

Residences at The Links moves forward

When complete, the Residences at The Links will add nearly 300 apartments on the city's southeast side, at the corner of Balybunion Road and Tullamore Drive. Green Fairways Development will construct the buildings in phases, alongside the Links Golf Course.

Residences at The Links subdivision would be built on 20 acres in southeast Bloomington next to The Links at Ireland Grove golf course.
City of Bloomington
Residences at The Links subdivision would be built on 20 acres in southeast Bloomington next to The Links at Ireland Grove golf course.

As part of Monday’s consent agenda — intended for routine items — the council took one vote to approve more than a dozen items.

Several of those pertained to Green Fairways’ project: The council approved the developer’s preliminary site plan; rezoned part of the property as public lands and institutions; and confirmed Green Fairways would pay the city about $200,000 to offset costs for traffic growth. There was no discussion on the project.

In December, the Bloomington Planning Commission recommendedthe Links project.

A study released last year shows Bloomington-Normal needs to add nearly 4,500 dwellings to meet local workforce needs. The Links project is one of several new construction developments approved in recent months across the Twin Cities.

In recent weeks, leaders have said all the planned developments still aren’t enough.

Program focus vacant commercial properties

The council voted 8-1 to amend city code, creating a registry for vacant commercial buildings. Ward 1’s Grant Walch voted “no.”

Melissa Hon, who heads the city’s economic and community development department, said amending the code really is a way for the city to keep neighborhood preservation a priority.

"Ultimately our goal is to help," she said.

Registering abandoned properties allows city staff to ensure they are secured properly and maintained to adequate standards, added city attorney Jeff Jurgens.

Hon told the council, with the registry, city staff can connect property owners to grant opportunities and other avenues to address the sites' problems. It’s about awareness, not necessarily enforcement, said Hon.

Registration won’t require fees. But the owners could face fines for continued dereliction of property upkeep — $30, followed by $100.

The program won’t take effect until May, to allow city leaders time to spread the word about the amendment to the preservation code, said Hon.

During public comment, Tammy Heard, of the Mid-Illiniois Realtors Association, praised the city for beging proactive about the vacant properties, adding she appreciated city staff seeking real estate professionals’ feedback on the ordinance draft.

Lobbying contract redux

Bloomington will have Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm Thorn Run Partners represent the city’s concerns in congressional matters, after the council OK’d a three-year, $270,000 contract with the group.

In January, the council narrowly rejected the lobbying proposal, after a lengthy discussion on whether the city should retain such a firm. But in a 6-3 vote Monday, the council passed an amended version that allows Bloomington to cancel the agreement with a 30-day written notice.

Ward 1's Walch, Ward 3's Sheila Montney, and Nick Becker of Ward 5 voted against hiring the lobbying firm.

Ward 9’s Tom Crumpler and Ward 6’s De Urban reintroduced the proposal, after voting against it in January.

Crumpler lamented the initial proposal coming as a routine consent agenda item. In the weeks since, he’s said he's changed his mind after researching the topic. He's found municipalities face stiff competition for federal funding, and that communities with lobbyists have found success, he said.

Urban said she regrets voting “no” initially, and in hindsight should have asked to table the discussion to a later date.

COVID-relief funds help with street, sidewalk work

The council also voted Monday to put nearly $4 million in federal COVID-relief funding into its capital improvement asphalt and concrete fund — and to spend more than half for Phase 2 of the city’s street repair and sidewalk projects.

In all, Bloomington garnered nearly $13.5 million dollars through the American Rescue Plan Act. Last year, the council voted to dedicate about 70% of the aid to infrastructure projects, such as the street resurfacing.

As part of the fund transfer, the council OK’d a nearly $1.6 million contract with H.J. Eppel & Co., for FY2023’s second phase of general resurfacing; and an $813,000 contract with George Gildner for the sidewalk, curb and gutter replacements.

Fiscal ‘24 budget previewed

Each February, the council gets an early look at the city’s proposed annual budget. On Monday, city finance chief Scott Rathbun outlined what’s ahead for fiscal 2024.

Rathbun said early projections show higher revenue for FY24, resulting from the past year’s economic growth. The city plans to use the reserves in part to put more money toward infrastructure such as road work and capital projects, he said.

The city’s budget sees a roughly 3% annual growth, said Rathbun, adding, “Inflation is impacting our budget as well.”

Gleason said more FY24 budget proposal details will be the focus of next Monday’s committee of the whole meeting.

Budget finalizing takes place over the next few months, with the council adopting a budget in early April, a few months ahead of the fiscal year’s July 1 start.

In other business, the council:

  • Approved spending just over $300,000 to buy the Bloomington Police Department five Ford Police Interceptors. The utility hybrid vehicles will come from Sutton Ford. Related, the council OK’d disposing of surplus BPD vehicles not reassigned.   
  • Amended its agreement, tied to BPD coordinating with District 87 its school resource officer program. The update requires District 87 to pay 75% of the two school officers' base salaries. Since 2011,, the district has paid a flat fee of $50,000 per officer. The change will bring Bloomington an extra $52,000 this year.
  • Signed off on a $251,000 contract with CDM Smith for treatment plant chemical systems improvement construction observation. 
  • Amended the city’s rules about video gaming license agreements, creating stricter requirements for change in ownership notifications.
  • OK’d a municipal utility easement with Nord Farms for the QuikTrip project, and authorized the city manager to OK additional easement and license agreements tied to that construction.

Michele Steinbacher was a WGLT correspondent, joining the staff in 2020. She left the station in 2024.