State Farm’s recent decision to demolish its former downtown Bloomington headquarters has left local officials scrambling to prevent an iconic community structure from disappearing.
Community leaders seek inspiration and one or more buyers, though they don't know how much time they have to search.
State Farm used its downtown building for nine decades. Architect Russell Francois knows what the 13-story landmark represents to the community. He has worked under its long shadow a block away for more than four decades.
“As a downtown business owner and building owner and with so much involvement in the downtown community, I felt it was probably the single biggest loss that would result from a demolition of the building,” Francois said.
Francois calls the old headquarters the community’s most identifiable building. It was once the tallest high-rise between St. Louis and Chicago. The giant block letter State Farm sign glowed red over the downtown, until last year after the insurance giant closed the office and tried to sell it.
State Farm had gradually taken staff out of the 200,000-square-foot art deco building, as the company sought what it calls more collaborative physical workspaces.
Five months ago, a real estate broker representing an unnamed developer said it would save the building with a mix of retail, restaurants and offices. That deal fell through. State Farm announced last month it will demolish the building.
“It made as much logic to me as I’m trying to sell my house and the first buyer comes along and says, ‘I don’t like your house.’ I’m going to say, nobody wants my house, I guess I’m going to tear it down,” said McLean County historian Greg Koos.
Koos helped organize a group of 17 downtown stakeholders called the Save Our State Farm Building. The group is asking the company to give it more time to help come with another solution. They fear imminent demolition will scare off potential investors.
The group has also launched an online petition to save the building. Assessors list the building’s market value at just under $9 million.
Koos suggested State Farm is moving quickly to spare the cost of maintaining the building while it sits empty. He asks what’s the rush?
“State Farm is, what, a $100 billion corporation? The idea that State Farm somehow can’t afford to maintain that building is just laughable,” Koos said.
Historic preservationists such as Jim Lindberg offer stories of inspiration from all across the country. Lindberg is the senior policy director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
“We are seeing in so many places around the country people being successful in finding creative ways to adapt older buildings to new needs,” said Lindberg.
Lindberg said many companies in smaller Midwestern cities have saved large historic structures from demolition.
For example, the first skyscraper ever built in Iowa. At 19 stories, Equitable of Iowa in Des Moines was the Hawkeye State’s tallest building for 50 years. It housed an insurance company.
After nearly two decades of fits and starts, in 2016 buyers converted the building into two stories of commercial space, more than 140 apartments, and a penthouse condo with a rooftop patio.
Closer to home is the Mississippi River city of Dubuque, Iowa. It's about the size of Normal. Dubuque has reinvented itself as a city with more than 1,300 historic properties. It claims several redevelopment successes. The crown jewel is a 186,000-square-foot window and door factory that is now an innovation center blending retail shops, nonprofits, and artists with loft apartments. The price tag was close to $34 million.
Landmarks Illinois calls itself the state’s leading voice for historic preservation. The nonprofit counts the McLean County Museum of History among its reclamation success stories.
Frank Butterfield is director of Landmark Illinois’ Springfield office and a member of the Save Our State Farm building committee.
“They should be very hesitant about allowing a demolition of this scale,” Butterfield said. “We have seen revitalization success stories, and they almost always involved finding a preservation solution for a building this prominent.”
One of downtown Peoria’s most prominent buildings is the century-old former Chase Bank. Caterpillar abandoned it two years ago after the heavy equipment company announced plans to move its corporate headquarters to Chicago.
In stepped OSF Healthcare, which bought the building and the entire block for $1 and is moving its headquarters and 700-plus employees there.
“In addition, Caterpillar donated what it would have spent on demolition toward the rehab effort,” Butterfield explained. “So now we have roughly an $80 million project where OSF Healthcare is going to put its employees downtown.”
Caterpillar donated $3 million to the project.
Each of these adaptive-use projects has an element in common: government assistance in the form of state and national tax credits.
In the Des Moines insurance building renovation, the developer spent $38 million and got $6.2 million in federal and $6.4 million in state tax credits. The OSF project could get as much as $10 million each in state and federal incentives. In every project, developers say assistance is critical.
Redevelopment projects can tap into tax credits through a federal program that began in 1977.
It encourages rehab of buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places by offering an 80-20 local match of rehab expenses. State Farm took advantage of this program in 2004 to renovate the former headquarters. State Farm secured $2.5 million in federal tax credits back then.
Lindberg said there’s a growing demand for renovated spaces. He noted applications for the federal tax credit program jumped 9% last year.
“For many years I think this was maybe an unusual thing and I think more and more in every kind of community large and small we see this happening and people are seeing it work,” Lindberg said. “I don’t think anybody is looking at these projects and saying, ‘Oh that was a mistake.’ They are saying ‘Wow that’s a great idea. Let’s do more of that.’”
Lindberg warns the National Register designation may unlock incentives to reinvent a property but won't stop an owner from tearing it down.
Illinois is one of 36 states with their own historic tax credits, though the program began only last year. The state tax credits cover 25% of renovation costs up to $3 million. Illinois caps the program at $15 million per year. Lindberg said developers compete for the money.
“The experience we see around the country is that states that have these state credits that can be combined with the federal, that can be a powerful incentive that can really accelerate investment in older buildings and revitalization in communities,” Lindberg said.
What Will It Take?
These massive multi-million dollar projects are not easy to do. You need a buyer and investors willing to assume financial risk.
A history professor at Illinois State University said you also need a community vision of how to attract traffic toward its most historical elements. Alan Lessoff said Bloomington has lacked vision in decades of failed planning.
Lessoff is working on a McLean County Museum of History exhibit and book chronicling Bloomington-Normal’s planning missteps and missed opportunities. He’s also a member of the Save Our State Farm Building committee.
Lessoff said downtown Bloomington is paying the price for a half century of bad planning including engineering one-way traffic through and around downtown. He said that created a moat that isolated the central business district.
Lessoff said the city also made space for parking lots and garages which made it easier for people to drive away from the city’s core. Commercial and retail businesses, he said, migrated to Veterans Parkway and other points east.
Lessoff said city planners have spent several decades now trying to correct errors by bringing more multipurpose, mixed-use buildings to the city center for people to shop, park, and live. But he added the city remains slow to act on recommendations, even ones the city paid for.
Lessoff said letting State Farm tear down its historic building would be another mistake that would take decades to overcome.
“I think if you let the State Farm building go, the result would be anything that went in there would be pretty dreary by comparison to what can be put in that building,” Lessoff said. “It compounds earlier mistakes. It goes in the opposite of the direction we should be going in a host of ways.”
State Farm’s and Bloomington’s growth were heavily intertwined in times past. Lessoff said that made it hard to imagine the company ever diminishing its role in the community.
“A lot of the political discussion in this town – and I’m moralizing a little, takes State Farm for granted, that they’ll be the presence that will back us up,” Lessoff said.
Lessoff said that dynamic created a paternalistic relationship that caught Bloomington flat-footed when State Farm pulled out of downtown.
“People just expect it to do things for the city and when the company finds it’s got to do other things, people get angry at (State Farm) and blame it and say you aren’t doing things for us,” Lessoff said.
Lessoff thinks even today, many aren’t grasping the magnitude of losing one of downtown’s most significant structures.
“I really think people aren’t imagining this problem in the magnitude that’s facing us,” I still think they are taking for granted that things are going to be ok here even though changes are happening all around them,” Lessoff said.
Lessoff suggested the city could use historic preservation rules to slow the start of demolition, but the city can’t stop it. He suggests the city buy the building only as a last resort. He said the city already has vacant lots such as the former Electrolux and Brokaw hospital site north of downtown.
Lessoff suspects one reason the City of Bloomington is hesitant to intervene is a case of once bitten, twice shy.
“A lot of cities have had that and it does become a problem of argument, “You promised us this about that. How do we know your promises about this are going tome true,’” Lessoff said. “It’s a real political problem.”
The downtown arena is an example that could be fueling the city’s resistance. The structure has never fulfilled its promise.
Former city council member Karen Schmidt voted against the arena but is also serving on the Save Our State Farm Building committee. She sees opportunity but senses the skepticism.
“I’ve heard overwhelming support for this ... though I think there’s a lot of caution that the city not take on real estate and more financial burdens,” Schmidt said.
Even Mayor Tari Renner acknowledged the city has suffered from paralysis by analysis, especially when compared to its Twin City neighbor.
“The Town of Normal is like white on rice,” Renner quipped. “The City of Bloomington has been much less activist. We are changing, we are getting better, but it definitely has not been our culture to seize and grab opportunities to expand our local economy and expand economic development, especially in our downtown.”
Renner also sits on the committee with Normal Mayor Chris Koos. Renner tries to assure the public that the city won’t get into a boondoggle just to save face.
“We are not going to get into reckless or irresponsible types of deals,” Renner said. “We’ve shown that with the hotel (project) in downtown Bloomington. Nobody wanted a hotel and conference center that was close to (U.S. Cellular) Coliseum more than I did, but we were not taking any deal that was coming along.”
A number of Bloomington residents say redevelopment should be left to the private sector. That was one of the sentiments expressed to council member Jenn Carrillo in community listening sessions.
Carrillo said part of the public also said the city should do anything it can to keep the building intact. She said the public hasn’t given clear marching orders.
“That was the thing I already felt in my gut and I think that these listening sessions have confirmed that people have strong feelings, but also on the plus side, people can see each other’s argument for or against city intervention to save the building.”
What Could The Building Become?
Advocates say the possibilities for repurposing the State Farm building are endless. The cost of the renovation will depend on the plan. Mayor Tari Renner said that gets tricky for committee members who want to help find a buyer, because they don’t have access to the building so they are going off of past experience and word of mouth when trying to explain the condition of the structure.
“We need to know more and State Farm knows we need to know more and we’ve asked to have more information,” Renner said. “So we are hoping to get in in fairly short order and with perhaps some possible investors so we can do some one-stop shopping.”
Architect Russel Francois said the committee wants to know specifics on the condition of the building, including environmental concerns in what he calls a shopping cart to present to prospective developers.
“I think those would be sort of the minimum that I see and then also what (does State Farm) expect out of the building and what could be do, what could a developer do (the company) feel whole at the end of this process.”
Without knowing specifics, committee members have said the building is in excellent shape. Remember that renovation 15 years ago? Francois said having a working elevator and sprinkler systems are big plusses.
Committee member Greg Koos said the building’s open floor plan allows access to natural lighting, which said would make for an easy transition for a technology company to fill.
“The workers of the new information economy really value natural daylight, they value being close to windows, they value having fresh air at their workspace,” Koos said. “This kind of building is actually an attraction.”
Francois said the State Farm building with all its history is exactly the kind of structure that attracts millennials who would work or shop in the new building.
He said in his travels downtown he often sees them getting photographed for graduations and weddings in places like alleys, old doorways and other decrepit-looking spaces.
“I believe there’s a search for authenticity,” Francois explained. “We are seeing nationally so many developments that cue back into art deco or pretend to be historic buildings and they simply are not.”
There’s another reason historian Greg Koos said the State Farm building should not be torn down. He said the environmental impact from a prolonged demolition would dramatically increase the size of the community’s carbon footprint.
“Preserving buildings has an immediate impact on the carbon footprint that any particular community expresses,” Koos said. “Building new is far more wasteful, if you will, particularly if you have a lot of unclaimed empty properties.”
Committee members aren’t saying if they believe their efforts will save the State Farm building from demolition, but Francois said he’s simply asking the company exhaust all options first.
“Let’s all worth together and see if together out efforts will yield the result we are all looking for and that is a continued good neighbor approach in the Bloomington-Normal area,” Francois said.
Committee members said they want State Farm to appoint a company representative to meet with the group to help understand reasons for the planned demolition and the tear down timeline.
State Farm officials declined to be interviewed for this story. Public Affairs Specialist Gina Morss-Fischer issued this statement: “We remain open to private conversation with the city and other parties. However, we continue to move forward with plans to demolish the building.
“We understand there is admiration for, and interest in, the downtown building. As we continue to move forward with the demolition process, we will work with the city and a contractor on permitting and to minimize any downtown business or traffic disruptions.”
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