© 2024 WGLT
A public service of Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Split Bloomington council stalls proposed $18.5M development amid calls for prevailing wages

Developer Andy Kaufmann addresses the Bloomington City Council at its meeting Monday, May 22, 2023, at the downtown Government Center.
Michele Steinbacher
Developer Andy Kaufmann addresses the Bloomington City Council at its meeting Monday, May 22, 2023, at the downtown Government Center.

An $18.5 million proposal to create a high-end housing complex near downtown is on hold, after the Bloomington City Council opted Monday to postpone a scheduled vote until June 12.

The main delay is whether the city should require developer 402 E. Washington LLC to provide workers with prevailing wages in constructing the five-story apartment building and townhomes. But another discussion centered on the affordable housing crisis in the community, with several public commenters asking if the project is what's best for Ward 6, where many people struggle to pay rent.

The Washington Street property, just west of the LaFayette Apartments, is on a site that’s home to the deteriorating City of Refuge church and a vacant lot that once housed the now-razed Coachman Motel. If approved, the project would create about 75 dwellings — mostly apartments, but also two dozen townhomes.

Also at Monday’s meeting, the council OK’d spending nearly $500,000 to outsource public works’ engineering services; made several decisions on the O’Neil Park and Pool project; and heard a report on the state of Bloomington streets. Read more on those actions in this story.

Mayor voted to break tie

Prevailing wages are a standard based on an hourly rate for similar jobs. It's usually considered in relation to union wages. In Illinois, public works projects are required to follow these guidelines.

Because the 402 E. Washington proposal is a private development, some council members said prevailing wages shouldn’t be required. But others argued because the developer is seeking about $4.5 million in city incentives, it should be added to the agreement — as a show of solidarity with local unions.

 An abandoned lot at 402 E. Washington Street, with a sign indicating the city of Bloomington owns the property.
Michele Steinbacher
Developers 402 E. Washington LLC are looking to build an $18.5 million housing complex just east of downtown Bloomington.

“I believe prevailing wages will allow for hiring bright individuals, and help our families attain a decent living, and reinvest in this community," said Ward 9's Tom Crumpler, calling for the vote be pushed back until June. "We should find a way to write that into the contract, that would be agreeable for all parties."

Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe cast the tie-breaking 5-4 vote to table voting on the proposal. He sided with Crumpler, and Ward 1’s Jeanna Kerns, Ward 4’s John Danenberger, and Cody Hendricks of Ward 6.

Opponents of the delay were Ward 3’s Sheila Montney (who attended the meeting remotely), Ward 2’s Donna Boelen, Ward 5’s Nick Becker, and Kent Lee, Ward 8.

Mollie Ward, who represents Ward 7, was absent.

Boelen said the managers of 402 E. Washington LLC are private developers who want to invest millions in a piece of property that's not collecting any tax right now. She thought delaying the vote was a bad idea.

So did Becker, who pointed to the growing need for more tax revenue, noting the city needs to cover millions of dollars of needed street repairs.

Developers cautiously optimistic

Developers Andy Kaufmann and Robbie Osenga said after Monday’s decision to table the vote that they were disappointed but still hopeful the council will OK the plan at its June 12 meeting. But that date is the last chance, said Kaufmann.

“That’s probably it. The number of hurdles that need to be jumped to make a fall start for this project are significant,” he said.

He and Osenga likely would abandon the project if they don't get the go-ahead by June.

“With interest rates, with inflation, and certainly with the TIF (tax increment financing district) itself which has been established — losing that much more time of TIF eligibility, it’s a significant enough delay that we believe that it will kill the project,” he said.

As for the possibility of requiring prevailing wages, Kaufman said that would doom the plan's prospects.

He and Osenga anticipate unions will be involved with the 402 E. Washington project, but strict requirements will end the project, he said.

“If we were to establish and use union wages for (the entirety of) this project, it would not go forward. The cost would be significantly more than we have budgeted, and what the project could afford,” he said.

Kaufmann said using both union and non-union labor has been the structure for the developers' current project — redeveloping the former CII East Building into what's now known as Northwest Mutual Building.

Mayor sees both sides, wants more discussion

Mwilambwe said he likes the near downtown project, but felt compelled to delay the vote because of strife.

“I sensed there was quite a bit of opposition to the proposal,” he said, and he didn't want to create a sense of jamming the decision through.

During public comment, six people spoke against the development. Five took issue with the high-priced housing, and some of those added a caveat that if the development did go through, prevailing wages should come into play.

One speaker, Mike Raikes, said he was representing thousands of construction workers in the area.

“How can it be there are no labor standards language in the agreement?" he asked, while the ordinance proposal does specifically make a point of mentioning the Illinois Prevailing Wage Act does not apply. Raikes is president of the Livingston and McLean Counties Building and Construction Trades Council.

A public body, such as the council, has the authority to add language requiring private developers follow the wage guidelines.

Raikes also mentioned Mwilambwe’s recent appointment to the statewide Workforce Development Board, asking the mayor to keep workers in mind with this proposal.

Both Kaufmann and Osenga also spoke during public comment.

Affordable housing is a real issue. But studies have shown a variety of housing is needed in the area, said Osenga.

Creating more infill, high-density, market-rate housing “will help improve the competitiveness of our community to attract and retain the young, talented and mobile workforce that are increasing in much larger numbers in other growing Midwestern markets,” he told the council.

Deputy City Manager Billy Tyus, attending remotely, led a presentation pitching the Washington Street proposal. Tyus said the money invested in the blighted TIF district will indeed benefit Ward 6 and the city as a whole, adding the city is committed to expanding affordable housing, and noting more than a dozen such projects are currently under way.

"It's worth saying that this project is one piece of a larger housing puzzle," said Tyus. "Just because you do one, doesn't mean you can't do the other," he added.

He said calling the apartments and townhouses "luxury units" was misleading. He characterized them, instead, as market-rate.

"As people invest in the area, property values go up," he said.

Mwilambwe agreed, saying, “The property has been sitting vacant for a very long time. So, we have to find a way to bring it back on the tax rolls, eventually.”

“At the same time I think we have to find a better common ground, I think. This one feels like it’s a little bit too contentious, and I’d like to see more than a 5-4 vote,” said the mayor.

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