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As Aldermen Push Back, Downtown Task Force Still Eyes Market Street Garage

Members of the Downtown Bloomington Task Force clashed Tuesday over a proposal to knock down the aging Market Street garage and replace it with a new library and transit center, weeks before the panel presents its final recommendations to aldermen.

The panel has been working since May to develop actionable ideas for how to revitalize Downtown Bloomington, leaning heavily on existing city planning documents. The task force’s initial report identified myriad ideas under consideration, though recent discussion has focused on a big “catalyst” project to drive more foot traffic to downtown’s core.

The task force’s chair, Alderman Amelia Buragas, has expressed support for the Market Street property as that catalyst project. It would provide a larger Bloomington Public Library and a new transfer center for Connect Transit—two longstanding items on the community’s to-do list.

The idea does align with the city’s 2013 Downtown Bloomington Strategy and its 2015 comprehensive plan, both approved by previous councils. The comprehensive plan, for example, calls for communitywide services like the library to be in the city’s core, preferably downtown.

But the current council appears split on the idea. Aldermen told the library’s board of trustees in June to focus on expanding at its current Olive Street location, and some aldermen voiced similar opinions earlier this month after the Market Street idea went public.

On Tuesday after a presentation from Bloomington’s Public Works director on the unique infrastructure issues facing downtown, discussion circled back to the catalyst project.

Credit Cristian Jaramillo / WGLT
Bloomington Alderman Amelia Buragas, also the chair of the Downtown Bloomington Task Force.

Task force member Kim Bray, also Ward 9 alderman, said she doesn’t think the panel should recommend the Market Street project in its final report—at least not until more details are fleshed out. She raised questions about the unique engineering needs of a joint library-transit-parking complex.

“I don’t think we have enough information to make such a recommendation,” said Bray, who also floated the idea of building a second public ice rink close to the existing library.

Bray also pushed back on task force members who’ve argued that the city’s past planning documents call for the Market Street project.

“Yes, while this group was commissioned to prioritize, let’s not forget that things happened in the interim (since those documents were approved),” said Bray, who was elected last spring. “There’s an important piece that’s not been slid in here, and that’s the half-million dollars in investment that’s already been done by this community, based on the work that the library board did with (engineering and architectural firm) Farnsworth, and the weigh-in the council did back in June. This was a period of years. Things happened.”

Farnsworth's library study cost $86,000. The city spent around $460,000 to buy and demolish the former Sugar Creek Packing plant (and another nearby building) just south of the library, for unspecified future use.

“Why recommend something that upends the work of many when we really don’t have a solid basis to do so?” Bray asked.

Buragas responded: “The solid basis is the planning documents, which I think we need to not understate how much work went into them.”

Buragas has expressed doubt that "we as a city have sufficient funds or capacity to do both" a catalyst project and build a new library.

"That's not a choice I want to make because both are incredibly important to me," Buragas said earlier this month.

Justin Boyd, a member of both the task force and the Bloomington Planning Commission, said it would be “irresponsible” to dump the Market Street idea without further discussion.

"It's OK (for us) to challenge the council a bit and say maybe it's time to rethink this a bit."

“I don’t think a poll amongst council overrides a comprehensive plan that was adopted till 2035,” said Boyd. “If the council felt that their opinion at a meeting overrode the comprehensive plan, they should’ve given us different direction than to review the comprehensive plan and review the Downtown Strategy (document).”

“It’s OK (for us) to challenge the council a bit and say maybe it’s time to rethink this a bit,” Boyd said. “Because you only have one opportunity to get this right.”

(Editor’s note: Boyd is a financial supporter of GLT and its Sound Ideas program.)

Also during Tuesday’s meeting, Public Works Director Jim Karch was asked about moving the Connect Transit transfer center off Front Street. Connect Transit leaders say that existing transfer center—serving up to 1,500 riders daily—is insufficient.

“Staff is very much supportive of making sure that’s relocated somewhere,” Karch said, noting traffic congestion caused by the current location.

(Editor's note: GLT Program Director Mike McCurdy is Connect Transit's board chair.)

Task force member Carlo Robustelli, also a McLean County Board member, expressed support for continuing discussion on the Market Street project.

“If we hold as a standard that we’re going to need to know firm costs with these recommendations, we’re going to get caught in the proverbial ‘sacrificing the good for the perfect’ problem,” said Robustelli.

Task force member and Ward 1 Alderman Jamie Mathy found some middle ground, noting Tuesday that the group can present more than one recommendation for a catalyst project.

The Downtown Bloomington Task Force’s next meeting is Oct. 10. Buragas said Tuesday she’d like to present their final recommendations to the council by the end of October.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the amount of money spent on a study of the library and a land acquisition and demolition project south of the library.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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