Officials in Normal defended the Trail East project against public criticism Monday night, with the council unanimously approving two measures to keep the project moving forward.
The town’s agreement with developer Bush Construction now includes additional incentives meant to help Bush cover higher-than-anticipated project costs.
The agreement approved in October 2018 did not include 106 E. Beaufort St., which currently houses Windy City Wieners. City Manager Pamela Reece said Bush is buying the property. It would be demolished along with 104 and 108 E. Beaufort St. to make way for the five-story multi-use building and parking lot.
The building plans now also include another 13,000 square feet of leasable space on the first floor, including a food hall.
The changes put Bush’s anticipated investment in the project at $30 million, up from the original $29.2 million.
To help fill the gap in funding, the town will give Bush 100 percent of tax increment financing (TIF) increment generated by the project. The town had planned to retain a portion of the increment, with a $270,000 net present value, to help cover utility relocation and administrative costs.
The town will also give Bush a 50 percent rebate on food and beverage and sales tax generated by the food hall, up to $250,000 or five years from the start of operations.
The new incentives put the town’s financial stake in the project above the original $8 million projection.
Normal Town Council candidate Stan Nord said that’s too high a price to pay for a building he said would only add to Uptown’s vacancies.
Nord characterized Normal’s One Uptown Circle building as a warning of things to come at Trail East.
“The top floors of Uptown One are luxury apartments; many of these are still not rented,” he said. “Regardless of need, taxpayers should not be subsidizing $4,200 a month luxury apartments. Taxpayers were told Uptown One was a pilot. This pilot has borne no fruit.”
Nord said the over 20-year-old Uptown Renewal plan that first called for the buildings’ construction doesn’t account for today’s changed economy.
“Since then, there have been two recessions. Diamond-Star (Mitsubishi) has closed. Eureka has moved. State Farm has downsized. Hundreds of businesses have shrunk or closed and the Internet has decimated brick-and-mortar retail.”
Reece said with Bush reporting the building’s commercial space is under about 70 percent letter of intent to occupy, “apparently there is a need.”
“As to the reference about the economy’s different today from when we first adopted the plan,” she continued, “we agree. The economy has changed quite a bit since then.”
Reece said tough financial times since the plan was adopted underscore the town’s success with public-private partnerships.
“Our $90 million or so of debt generated $140 million in private investment, and we’ve been very proud of that," she said.
Normal Mayor Chris Koos said he’s heard One Uptown called a failure before.
“It’s just not true,” he said. While the first floor, which was meant to house an 8,000-square-foot high-end restaurant, remains vacant, the town is working with the developer to generate new ideas to fill the space.
He also addressed claims that the building’s residential floors remain empty.
“Seventeen out of the 21 units are rented, and likely will be fully rented in six months to a year. Buildings like that don’t fill overnight; it takes time," Koos said.
The project now moves ahead to the Historic Preservation Commission meeting at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, where commissioners will consider whether to approve demolition permits for 104, 106 and 108 E. Beaufort St. If commissioners decide the properties warrant historic preservation designation, the council will have 30 days to seek the designations or allow the demolitions to move forward.
Barring any delays, project architect Farnsworth Group estimates the project will be completed by August 2020.
Council members also approved a resolution to seek reimbursement from the former tenants of 104 E. Beaufort St. if the town has to move a mural painted on the building’s exterior.
In the event that the town is required to preserve the mural under the Visual Artists Rights Act, the town would pay between $56,200 and $81,560 to remove the mural, not including the cost to move it to its new home.
“We do not believe that we are going to have to remove and relocate the mural,” said Reece. “We still believe that the best plan and the appropriate plan is to demolish the mural when the building is demolished.”
But if those plans don’t come to fruition, the town will hold the former owners of The Pod responsible for paying back the cost to move the mural.
Reece said the project’s design team is still exploring other options to preserve the mural, if not in its original form, including taking high-resolution photos of the work.
Council member Chemberly Cummings voiced concerns the town would pay to relocate the mural when it may not even survive the move.
Brian Day, the town corporation counsel, said Farnsworth Group expects the mural to stay intact through the move. The firm has identified a specialty contractor that could handle the job, he said.
In fact, “The irony of this is that the mural probably has a better chance of surviving if it’s moved than if the building were to remain, just because of the condition of the building and what would have to be done to keep the building standing,” he said.
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