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City Manager Pam Reece confident in town's capacity to develop Uptown South

Farr Associates presented its master plan for Uptown South to the Normal Town Council on Monday.
Farr Associates presented its master plan for Uptown South to the Normal Town Council on Monday.

The draft of the strategic plan for Uptown South in Normal has a lot in it — a large footprint public building, housing, an Amtrak platform and so on. City Manager Pam Reece said you can fit quite a bit into those 7.5 acres south of the railroad tracks.

“Town staff works with developers and architects and engineers who are quite adept at figuring out how to efficiently use space and also build in the amenities and strategies that are important: green space, stormwater runoff solutions, trails for walking and biking, and things like that,” Reece said on WGLT's Sound Ideas.

While the housing component is still up in the air, Reece said it could involve several things.

“Apartments or condos or town homes for recently graduated students who want to continue to reside in the community and may be just starting out in their career. It could be empty nesters. It could be more affordable housing,” she said.

Affordable housing is one of the key shortages in the community. Developers often have difficulty making affordable housing projects work financially. But Reece said an arm of the Laborers International Union has had some success and is talking with the town.

“Sometimes they do developments that are a mixed affordable and market rate. So, there's different strategies and different ways to get it done. We just haven't got that far along yet,” said Reece, adding she is confident developers will be interested across the spectrum.

One challenge to attracting development to Uptown South over the next decade may be the closing window on incentives as the Tax Increment Financing district ages out and expires in 2027-28. The draft strategic plan also suggests making the area free of natural gas.

Reece acknowledged an all-electric approach may be in advance of where society is today, but pointed to the LEED standard for energy efficiency in building construction required by the original uptown strategic plan.

“That was very out of the ordinary. And here we are 20-plus years later and that's how buildings are built,” said Reece.

The decision on an all-electric Uptown South is up to the town council, she said, noting the draft plan goes back to the council for a vote after minor tweaks.

Uptown South development will require public investment of some sort. Reece said it’s unclear what level of public commitment will be needed and over what amount of time.

“I'm not going to rule out debt. But that certainly has not been part of our conversation," she said. "I can tell you, developing Uptown South at seven to eight acres is very different than what took place on the north side of the tracks where we reconstructed streets, and we completely built all new storm and sanitary sewer and the like, and buildings, and all sorts of infrastructure.

"The south side of the tracks probably does not require construction to the extent that was required on the north side. And because this is a longer-term plan, it does give us an opportunity to find solutions for that.”

She said grant funding has always been and will continue to be part of the town's strategy to make projects affordable.

There will be a slight modification of the plan for some on-street parking, she said, but otherwise, the draft plan is close to being ready for council to vote on it.

Recently, the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council came out with a new image and marketing campaign called “Life Multiplied." Reece said she thinks it fits well with existing town positioning efforts.

“I think that's a wonderful slogan," she said. "The theme behind it is to attract workforce and investment to this community. I think the theme and the strategy are really on point. I'm excited about it. I think it's a great complement to what the Town of Normal does. We try to put out a lot of information on social media (about) all that is happening here in Normal. So, I think it's a good supplement to what we're doing.”

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