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Normal Town Council Advances Uptown Building With Eye On Historic Preservation

An architect's drawing of a five-story building with green space and parking proposed for Uptown Normal.
Farnsworth Group
Here is one concept design that incorporates green space and a first floor with 21 covered parking spaces and 8,500 square feet for retail. The second floor would have 23,000 square feet for offices and 1-3 bedroom apartments on upper three floors.

Normal Town Council members on Tuesday vowed to try to preserve three historic buildings as they consider plans for a five-story, $29 million structure with retail, offices, and apartments along Constitution Boulevard in Uptown Normal.

Council members made those comments after authorizing town staff to negotiate financial options and design features with Iowa-based Bush Construction. While making no firm promises, the council committed to exploring ways to accommodate construction of the proposed 115,000-square-foot building, green space, and parking while attempting to save buildings at 104, 106 and 108 E. Beaufort St. on the northeast corner of Uptown Circle.

“Architects can do some amazing things,” said council member R.C. McBride, who applauded preservation-minded residents for offering input that could make the project a win-win.

Councilman Kevin McCarthy echoed the sentiment.

Credit Ryan Denham / WGLT
Three buildings in the 100 block of E. Beaufort northeast of Uptown Circle that preservationists want to save when developers put up a new five-story building along Constitution Boulevard.

“I appreciate the offer of assistance, not opposition," he said.

Uptown business owner Andy Streenz said he wants to preserve the historic buildings and a colorful artists' mural that has been the backdrop of numerous photo and video shoots in Uptown. The Bill’s Lock and Key co-owner started a Facebook group with 870 members at last count.

Streenz described members of the group as a “ragtag group of citizens” that has come together in the past week.

“I and many others are concerned with the loss of these buildings, but we’re not necessarily in opposition to this development nor the developer," Streenz said. "What we are in opposition to is the purposeful destruction of these useful buildings with each having its own history and architectural details which lend the town its definition and its character.”

There was also a conciliatory tone.

"Instead of putting up obstructions to your plan, we would like to offer our assistance in coming up with a constructive way that will best serve the town, the developer and the concerned citizens," Streenz said.

Bloomington resident Christopher Meyers said old buildings add character and urged council members, “Don’t erase history.”  Realtor Dawn Peters, who moved an historic home several blocks from E. Washington to Grove St. in Bloomington, suggested tearing down historic buildings "takes away the connection to those who came before us."

Former Mayor Weighs In

Former Mayor Paul Harmon was on the council that hired Farr and Associates of Chicago to come up with an Uptown Master Plan for revitalizing the town’s central core. Harmon said Tuesday he always believed the most challenging part of the plan would be completing construction of new buildings to line the east and west side of Constitution Boulevard.

Man with glasses and notes sitting at a table.
Credit Colleen Reynolds / WGLT
Former Normal Mayor Paul Harmon told the council, "I congratulate you on your perseverance," for locating a developer from out of state willing to invest in Uptown construction.

“Tonight’s proposed building for the east side of the boulevard has everything Uptown needs to continue to flourish. It has retail, professional offices and residential. All of these are needed, and I congratulate you on your perseverance,” he said.  

Farnsworth Group, an architectural and engineering company based in Normal, kickstarted the effort when it agreed to relocate to a new Uptown building so long as the company’s services would be used by developers.

The financing has also yet to be negotiated. Marc Tiritilli, who ran a close but unsuccessful election challenge of Mayor Chris Koos, said the town needs to consider the project only if it avoids borrowing, receives fair market value for the two town-owned buildings and possibly a third it could buy from Batavia owner Matthew Martin.

Economic Development Funding

Despite concerns similar to those expressed by other local government leaders, the Town Council also unanimously approved spending an additional, unbudgeted $67,000 for economic development initiatives that are part of the BN Advantage coalition.

The funding level was less than the $117,000 requested because town staff is concerned the Economic Development Council has not provided enough details about how additional funding will be used.

The town will continue to fund its annual $100,000 contribution, but it will pay in monthly installments to insure the EDC provides newly-required, monthly progress reports. McBride, who serves on the BN Advantage Marketing and Communications Committee, which has produced materials, questioned progress of other initiatives.

“We haven’t seen the leadership we need to see, so I’m hesitant to invest blindly,” he said.

Council member Kathleen Lorenz stressed there needs to be more transparency. She had several questions and wondered about how much private investment has been committed.

“The initial plan was to have a 75-25 percent breakdown of private versus public investment. Where are we with that?” she asked.

Koos said to date, private businesses have agreed to put $215,000 toward the EDC and BN Advantage’s marketing, data analysis, workforce development and quality-of-life improvements. That compares to $180,000 from the city of Bloomington and the town.

“I’m still a little perplexed why our business community is hesitant to invest in BN Advantage, and I’m really hoping we can call for a community conversation about this,” said council member Kevin McCarthy. “If there’s a problem that our business community doesn’t see the ROI (Return On Investment) or the value, then maybe we have the wrong plan or maybe we have the wrong players. I’m not sure what the answer is.”

Koos said local communities aren’t spending enough on economic development.

“The dollar amount we’re spending on economic development tonight is less than we spend on road salt. Now road salt might be more important today, but in the 365-day cycle it’s probably not. We spend more money on parking enforcement than we do on economic development.”

Koos agreed government leaders and residents need to know what they are getting for their dollars but he concluded that ultimately, “We need to step up and the private sector needs to step up.”

Editor's note: GLT General Manager R.C. McBride is also a member of the Normal Town Council. 

WGLT depends on financial support from users to bring you stories and interviews like this one. As someone who values experienced, knowledgeable, and award-winning journalists covering meaningful stories in central Illinois, please consider making a contribution.

Colleen has spent most of her adult life working the streets and beats of Bloomington-Normal for WJBC-AM where she won numerous reporting awards for hard news, feature writing, and breaking news coverage.
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