Normal Town Council members could get an earful Tuesday night as they decide whether to take the first step toward another building project in Uptown Normal—a proposal that some community members say threatens the central business district’s history and charm.
The Normal Town Council will vote whether to begin negotiations with a developer, Bush Construction, on an agreement that could result in a proposed $29.2 million mixed-use building on the northeast arc of Uptown Circle. Construction could begin as soon as this fall.
The project has generated controversy largely because of its potential impacts on three buildings on Beaufort Street, including the iconic, colorful mural that faces the circle. The town’s original request for proposals appears to open the door for all three buildings to be demolished prior to construction. Town spokesperson Dan Irvin stressed Tuesday’s vote is preliminary and would “not either preserve the three buildings, nor endorse their demolition.”
Still, the prospect has some nearby business owners and community members worried that another part of “Downtown Normal” history will be bulldozed away.
Andy Streenz, co-owner of Bill’s Key and Lock Shop at nearby 127 E. Beaufort St., has been among the most vocal. His Jan. 9 “open letter” to Town of Normal leaders has been widely viewed on Facebook, where he’s also created a group called Save the Uptown Mural and Historic Buildings with nearly 800 members.
Streenz, whose family has owned businesses in Downtown/Uptown Normal since around 1960, said he’s generally liked the dramatic reshaping of the central business district in the past decade. And he was expecting some sort of construction at the Trail East location east of Constitution Boulevard, south of College Avenue.
But he said that can and should be done without demolishing the three buildings on Beaufort. He said they “remind us of Normal’s past and how time has left its stamp on the community.”
“If there is nothing left of the original Downtown Normal, is Uptown Normal truly a success?” he said. “Why invest in an area if you’re not gonna save anything of what that area used to be?”
The town owns two of the three buildings (104 and 108 E. Beaufort Street), which date back to the 1880s and ’90s. The building at 106 E. Beaufort is owned by Matthew Martin of Batavia and occupied by Windy City Wieners. The building at 108 E. Beaufort is occupied by Slingshot CoWork. (There was also once a corner building at 100 E. Beaufort—originally the Normal House Hotel co-owned by Jesse Fell—that has been gone for years.)
“They add character and nostalgia to that street, and it’s not just our opinion. That’s what I hear from customers,” said Natalie Wetzel, who owns The Pod, the current tenant at the town-owned 104 Beaufort St. “They just love the quaint nature of it.”
Wetzel too has liked many aspects of the Uptown Normal redevelopment. The recent addition of two hotels has increased foot traffic to her store, she said.
Yet while she knew more development in that area was possible, she said she was shocked to see it happen so quickly. She’s especially concerned about what will happen to the large mural painted on the west side of 104 E. Beaufort.
That 2011 mural was partly her idea—a creative solution to an eyesore problem on the side of her new business’ building. But that problem soon became a community canvas, drawing 50 professional and amateur artists. It’s now a popular spot for visitors to snap a selfie or a group shot on prom night.
“People are connected to it,” Wetzel said. “That is the power of art. It draws people together.”
Wetzel plans to close her shop in February to pursue other things, something she decided before the Trail East proposals surfaced. She’s happy to see first-floor retail included in the Bush Construction proposal, although she’s concerned about whether “mom-and-pop retailers” will be able to afford new-construction lease rates.
“When you add new construction, it can be beautiful, and it’s good, and I realize you need to be progressive and to incorporate those kinds of things, but at the expense of losing history and losing something that’s already working well is bad,” she said.
Streenz said Town of Normal leaders have a mixed record on historic preservation. He praised recent moves like the town’s investment in the Sprague’s Super Service restoration on Route 66. But he said he didn’t like seeing other downtown/uptown buildings vanish, like the Masonic Temple and University Christian Church.
Three proposals—ranging in cost from $21 million to $30 million—were submitted for the Trail East property, and Town of Normal staff says Davenport-based Bush Construction is the best option. The first floor of the 115,000-square-foot building would be retail. The second floor would provide office space for a consolidated Farnsworth Group and an unnamed tech company. The third, fourth, and fifth floors would be apartments.
Irvin, the town spokesperson, said the Bush proposal “is not a plan." At Tuesday's meeting the council will be asked to "authorize negotiation of a development agreement with Bush," which Irvin said could take several months. Then the agreement itself would have to be approved by the council, he said.
"For those who are concerned for the haste, the town will be considering the choice of a developer, not a project. That will come later, with ample time for public input," Mayor Chris Koos said in a Facebook post in response to concerns about the Beaufort buildings.
Maybe there’s a compromise, Streenz said, like new construction that doesn’t involve razing the Beaufort Street buildings. He suggested leaving a space between the two structures so the mural could remain visible, like the popular courtyard between Emack and Bolio’s and the Children’s Discovery Museum just across Beaufort Street.
Streenz and Wetzel plan to attend Tuesday’s council meeting. Streenz said the hundreds who’ve joined the “Save the Uptown Mural and Historic Buildings group” on Facebook has been humbling.
“It means people in our community really do care about our history,” he said.
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