Monte Brannan of Brannan & Company architects and Mike Wisdom of Wisdom Development Group have combined their talents to develop plans for Riverfront Village, an eight-acre development designed to be the centerpiece of the Heartland Riverfront Master Plan. The Riverfront Village will see its first tenant open for business in May 1996, as a unique brewpub begins operation in the former CILCO Harrison Substation, now being renovated.
Give us an overview of Riverfront Village and what it will involve.
Mike: The goal of Riverfront Village is to provide an area where people of all ages and all walks of life can go for a wide variety of entertainment – from recreation and relaxation to dining, theater, sports, comedy, competition, shopping and a whole host of other forms of fun. Plans include the new brewpub (already under construction), a number of different types of restaurants (including some floating pads in the river), and a broad mix of retail shops which will not only provide products or services but will be entertaining as well (such as a coffee shop, ice cream store, bicycle rental store, bookstore and card shop, floral shop, candy store, bakery, bagel shop, souvenir store, art gallery, museum, boutique apparel shops, etc.). On the second floor, we’ll have office space, which will contribute to having people there all year round.
Monte: Riverfront Village consists of eight acres of riverfront property in the middle of the area the city calls the “Heartland Riverfront Master Plan.” This area is bounded on the north by Main Street, on the south by Harrison, on the west by Constitution, and on the east by the river. The existing River Station Restaurant is located in the middle, and is the anchor of the Riverfront Village. The design of Riverfront Village provides for two large patios in the areas of Eckwood and Liberty Park. The patios will, in effect, raise the new structures above the flood plain.
Parking will remain underneath these patios in the same location as the parking lots are now, and the buildings will be on top of these patios. However, the buildings are pulled back along Constitution Avenue so that open space is provided along the riverfront. In this way, the public can used and enjoy these patios, and get full advantage of the beauty of the river. We plan to put a lot of tables, chairs and benches on the patios so people can eat, relax, browse, talk, people-watch, and otherwise enjoy the magical lure of the river. In addition, we plan to host a lot of functions, competitions, charitable events, and similar activities on those patios, so all types of people can be exposed to the riverfront.
How did you get involved in riverfront development? When did the idea begin for you?
Mike: I’ve always though Peoria’s waterfront was beautiful. Over the years, the city has purchased a lot of the properties on the riverfront, demolished the dilapidated buildings there, and otherwise taken the necessary steps to make this area attractive for new development. With the city preparing the Master Plan for the riverfront, and the enthusiasm generated from that plan, I thought the time was right for riverfront development to finally be possible in a big way. As a result, in early 1995, I began discussing this with Tom Tincher, the city’s riverfront development director. Tom was very supportive and encouraging, so I discussed it with Monte. We both felt we could make a contribution, and decided we wanted to be a part of this exciting new phase of Peoria’s growth.
Monte: I have always felt an attraction to the water; however, it became a forefront idea when I got involved as one of the owners of the Par-A-Dice Riverboat Casino. While we were providing the architectural services for the pavilion in East Peoria, we obviously had a lot of interaction with the river and its inherent beauty. We also learned at that time how to work with its natural problems. With that background, Mike proposed the idea of the Riverfront Village to me and asked if I was interested in participating with him. Obviously, I was.
How does the Riverfront Village fit into the total riverfront development plan?
Monte: Riverfront Village is an element of the Heartland Riverfront Master Plan. It is not too dissimilar from the concept for this area in the initial plan. Riverfront Village works with the transportation and vehicular access points that are provided for the rest of the project. We also have coordinated certain design features to be similar to the rest of the riverfront – such as handrails, lighting landscaping, and pavement designs. Our site plan provides for a continuous flow of people and open spaces to each side of Riverfront Village. The development really has no back side; the Constitution Avenue side of the project is tied in with a pedestrian walkway that runs the entire north-south distance of Riverfront Village. On the river side, we pick up from Festival Park on the north end and lead people directly into Riverfront Village, through the city’s pedestrian area and reflecting pool, along the front of River Station, and on to the southerly portion of Riverfront Village.
Mike: The city’s Master Plan for the riverfront is really excellent. It contemplates a wide variety of uses in different areas of the riverfront – uses that don’t conflict or compete, but complement and support each other. In the individual parts of the riverfront, there will be facilities devoted to parks, sports complexes, residential living, concert and performance areas, and commercial activities. Riverfront Village will be the major commercial component of the riverfront, with the types of users that will enhance the entertainment nature of this area.
What has your working relationship with the Riverfront Business District Commission (headed by Jim Baldwin), the Riverfront Development Corporation (headed by Skip Snyder), and the City of Peoria been like? Can you briefly explain the difference in purposes of these two groups?
Mike: Our working relationship with virtually everyone involved in riverfront development has been fantastic.. It seems like everyone recognizes the opportunities riverfront development offers to Peoria and the people of Central Illinois, and everyone is pulling in the same direction. The Riverfront Business District Commission (which is responsible for policy-making and governance of the riverfront) has been very thorough in its review of our plans, but has been consistently supportive and positive. The Riverfront Development Corporation (which is responsible for generating the private contributions necessary to develop the riverfront) seems very pleased with our plans, and has already been working hard to attract the funds needed to develop the riverfront in first-class fashion.
Everyone at the city has been supportive as well. Mayor Maloof recognized the possibilities of the plans the first time he saw them, and has been a strong supporter ever since. This is an incredibly complex project, but the attitude of all the parties has been to find ways to make it all happen.
Monte: The city staff members, mainly in the development, engineering, and zoning departments, have been helpful in guiding this project. As you might guess, there are numerous permits required to develop in the flood plain along the river. The engineering department has assisted us every step of the way to satisfy these requirements and provide beneficial solutions.
Regarding the Riverfront Corporation and Commission, we have been working with them continuously, and have made numerous improvements to our site plan because of their input. All the parties involved have been extremely energetic in finding agreeable solutions.
How strong has interest been from the private sector? What commitments have been made to date (or what are anticipated) insofar as private sector development is concerned?
Mike: Interest from the private sector has been very strong. Right after we announced our plans, there was a flurry of interest from people wanted to be a part of the riverfront. In fact, we have already met with people interested in becoming tenants for most of the uses we mentioned earlier. One thing I have been somewhat surprised at is the amount of interest from office users. If the office space were built right now, I think we could have already leased most of it.
Monte: I’m sure as the brewpub develops and opens for business, there will be even greater interest. To date, we have three letters of intent. The first, the brewpub, is now under construction, and we intend to open that in May 1996. The second is for a floating restaurant on a platform, which is part of the city’s marina project. We are anxious to complete this as soon as the city gets approval for the marina. The third is from a restaurant that is very anxious to be part of the Riverfront Villages. In addition to these letters of intent, we also have a long list of potential tenants who have expressed interest in Riverfront Village. We feel as long as the city can provide parking parallel with our building schedule, we will have all the space pre-committed before we complete each building pad.
Will riverfront development be able to attract new businesses and out-of-area businesses as opposed to simply relocating businesses from other parts of the Peoria are to the riverfront?
Monte: Most definitely. The riverfront is providing a new environment for new businesses, and Riverfront Village will be unique for all of Central Illinois. As an example, the brewpub is a new concept for the Peoria area. The investors in this business had their eye on the riverfront for many years, and we helped provide the opportunity.
Mike: We have no doubt we’ll be able to attract new users. The demographics of the Peoria area have changed dramatically in the past 20 years, but the entertainment opportunities have not kept pace. We hope to change that. With all of the activities planned for the riverfront, this will be the one area in Central Illinois where people can go on a regular basis with their family, friends or clients, and be entertained for an extended period of time. Because of that environment, we feel confident we’ll be able to attract users that aren’t presently in the Peoria marketplace. In addition to the brewpub, we are talking to representatives of other tenants who are not yet in Peoria. As the development progresses, these interests will ripen into letters of intent and leases.
What kind of unique development problems exist when developing on the riverfront as opposed to the suburbs?
Monte: Wayne Anthony (the city’s zoning director) calls these problems “opportunities for creative solutions.” The two largest challenges are the flood plain and the movement of people along the different levels of Riverfront Village. The flood plain is the main reason for building the raised platform over the parking. Obviously, it is more expensive than building on grade, as you would do in the suburbs. Concerning the movement of people, there area several grade changes in the Riverfront Village, as you go up to the first patio, down to the pedestrian plaza and River Station, and then back up again to the second patio. We have to design these different levels to be attractive and beckoning to people, so they are not seen as obstacles. The river is a tremendous benefit, but is has a major impact on the site design.
Mike: From the user’s standpoint, there are a number of challenges. We know we have to provide something unique to get people to come downtown (or stay downtown after work) on a regular basis. We think Riverfront Village will do that. We also have to provide the kids of activities and attractions that will make Riverfront Village attractive and desirable all year ‘round, not just in the summer months. Finally, we have to work closely with the city to make sure there is adequate parking which is convenient and easily accessible.
What financing mechanisms will be used in your riverfront developments?
Monte: The city’s contribution to riverfront development will be the infrastructure to support all the new projects. The city will have to provide adequate parking, whether it be on grade, in parking decks, or underneath our raised patios. The city will also have to provide the necessary access ways, utilities, and other infrastructure necessary for the private facilities to operate. In addition, the city will be providing the “pedestrian plaza” in the center of Riverfront Village, which will contain the reflecting pond, fountain, pedestrian area, and Peoria monument. This is the culmination of the city’s plan for a vista to the river under the Master Plan. It should be outstanding.
Mike: For the private components of Riverfront Village, we’ll be using conventional financing. That’s how the brewpub is financed, and that’s how we anticipate financing all the phases of Riverfront Village. Because of the city’s cost in providing the infrastructure, we know they won’t be able to offer any TIF monies or other kind of financial assistance to us. Our private projects will have to stand on their own. Fortunately, most of the local lending institutions have already stepped forward and told us they’d like to be involved in riverfront development – including First of America, Bank One, Commerce Bank, South Side Bank, Norwest Bank, Morton Community Bank and Herget Bank. That’s a pretty impressive array of lending interest. Obviously, the banks recognize the importance of riverfront development, and want to help where they can.
There have been other plans for developing the riverfront which have never made it off the ground. What makes this plan workable?
Mike: There are a lot of reasons. First, certain key companies have really gotten behind riverfront development this time. The importance of support coming from Caterpillar, CILCO, and some of the other major employers can’t be emphasized enough. Second, as we mentioned before, all the major participants are working together and cooperating beautifully. Third, the structure for fostering riverfront development is phenomenal, with the city’s formation of a separate department for riverfront development, the creation of the Riverfront Business District Commission to supervise and oversee riverfront development, and the formation of the Riverfront Development Corporation to raise the necessary funds from the private sector. Fourth, the Park District has really been involved, even appointing Ron Sanford as the chief architect for the Master Plan and hiring Bill Roeder as the programming director for the riverfront. Fifth, there are extremely capable people at the helm of these entities in Tom Tincher, Jim Baldwin, Ski Snyder, and Ron Sanford. Sixth, a number of competent developers have come forward with exciting proposals to develop the private components of the Master Plan.
Monte: Our Riverfront Village plan is workable for two main reasons. First, the project as proposed is the right size; second, the timing coincides with the public and private support for the riverfront. Regarding the size, the improvements we are proposing can be done in phases as the market grows, yet we are still planning enough space to have the critical mass necessary to attract people on a regular basis and allow the businesses there to survive and prosper. As for the timing, the riverfront has been looked at for many years, and various leaders have taken the project under their wing, but it is only now that the private and public sectors are in sync to provide the support required.
How accepting is the community at large to your efforts to date?
Monte: The excitement of people we talk to every day is outstanding. Mike and I have made numerous presentations of our plans to a lot of different groups, and the result is always the same – people are really excited to see what all is planned for the riverfront that they didn’t even know about. Someone always relates an experience they had in waterfront development in another city. The excitement just grows as more people see what awe are planning, and everyone is looking forward to spending more time along the river.
Mike: As Monte said, everyone has been very supportive. However, I still don’t think the majority of people understand everything that is planned for the riverfront – how much it involves and what a changes it will mean for Peoria. I will say this, though – I’ve noticed a subtle but important shift in people’s perceptions. When we first announced our plans, people were hopeful, but a little doubtful because of all the failed projects before us. The reaction was: “That’s fantastic, I hope you can get it done.” Now people are starting to believe it will happen, and are saying, “That’s fantastic, when will it open?”
Tell us about the microbrewery project.
Mike: The brewpub will be different from anything else in town, and not just because of its location. It will be charming and very “homey” because of its brick walls and rustic features. Around the country, brewpubs have been attracting people of all ages, not just the younger folks. Needless to say, the views will be awesome. The building couldn’t be any closer to the river without being in it. In our plans, we have capitalized on this by putting the brewing equipment and kitchen along the Western wall and placing the tables along the windows of the river wall on both floors. All of the brewing equipment will be plainly visible, and people will be able to watch as the head brewer makes all the beer. The head brewer will also be available to take people on tours and explain the whole brewing process. Obviously, the beer will be house-brewed, with a lot of body and character. We also intend to have excellent food and extremely knowledgeable and attentive service people. This will be a place where people of all ages will feel at home. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
Monte: We started interior demolition about three weeks ago and the building is now fairly well cleared out. We are not in the process of replacing the old windows and cutting in the new doors. We have submitted our application for a deck out over the river, which will allow people to mingle about the water and have a very close relationship with the river. The floor plan allows us to exhibit the brewing equipment both inside and outside the building. We are trying to maintain and exhibit the charm of the old building, which was originally built in the 1920s. The brewpub will consist of two stories with about 3,000 feet on each floor, and will contain a kitchen on the second floor to provide a wide selection of food. The investors, who are almost all local, are extremely excited and have been wandering through the building on practically a daily basis. We are planning to open the brewpub May 1, 1996, and hope to offer one of the major highlights of the city’s riverfront christening in the spring.
What other developers have plans which will fit into what you are doing on the riverfront?
Monte: The Heartland Riverfront Master Plan, which was developed by the city and numerous others, provides the underlying blueprint for the entire riverfront. As long as that blueprint is respected, the coordination will exist. Within the Riverfront Village plan, we have been working with Brian Wraight, the manager of the River Station. Our site plan and parking arrangements are coordinated with the River Station’s needs. Additionally, the architectural form that exists at the River Station is developed into our new building design concept for the rest of Riverfront Village.
Mike: In addition to our discussions with River Station, we have been coordinating our plans with Bud Grieves, who is building a dinner theater in the Gateway building and expanding the Landing. We have also been working with David Bielfeldt to coordinate the plans for Riverfront Village and his plans for renovating the Foster-Gallagher building into first-class loft condominiums. Both of these developments would complement and support Riverfront Village, and vice-versa. We are working with the Park District and city to assure that Riverfront Village blends well into the park and recreation areas they are building. We’ve also been in discussions with Dan Phillips to tie the Antique Center into Riverfront Village.
Is Peoria in danger of having too many projects on the table, with riverfront development and all of the development on the north end of town, including the proposed new mall?
Monte: It only takes a short trip to Bloomington or Springfield to identify the national and regional tenants that have not yet located in Peoria. Overall, we have to agree with the experts that Peoria is under-served by retail and restaurants. But more importantly, the riverfront attracts a different kind of user, a very unique user. We are developing a unique restaurant and entertainment park that many cities cannot offer.
Mike: There are a lot of developments being planned or built in the Peoria area right now, but this is very positive for Peoria. If you look at these various projects closely, it is clear they are all different. The focus of Riverfront Village is very different from the focus of the proposed mall, the development planned for Wallace Station, or the commercial park presently being built by RLI on North Knoxville. The primary focus of the riverfront is entertainment, as opposed to shopping. As a result, we won’t be competing with those developments, and they won’t be competing with Riverfront Village.
Who are the major players in the private sector that will make riverfront development happen?
Mike: Let’s face it, without the involvement of major business leaders like Don Fites, Bob Viets, and Bob Stevenson, we would not be where we are today. These men set the tone for their companies, and without the support of their companies, none of this would be possible.
Caterpillar has been the leader on the private side (including an unbelievably generous donation of $600,000 to help fund Festival Park) and CILCO has been extremely cooperative in making its property on the riverfront available for development. These business leaders have to remain committed to the cause, and it seems clear they intend to.
In addition, the people on the Riverfront Business District Commission and the Riverfront Development Corporation have to be willing to continue contributing their time, effort, and expertise to accomplish the objectives of these bodies, which are critical to not only building the riverfront, but building it in the first-class fashion we all want it to be.
Monte: The other major players in the private sector who will make riverfront development happen are the ones willing to try creative projects, take unique risks, and be innovative.
Mike and I have done an immense amount of research on this project, and we have never seen a city or location that has as much potential. We feel the Illinois River and the Peoria area will help us and others develop a unique riverfront complex that will benefit everyone in the Peoria area.
Once the riverfront is built out, we think it will help Peoria take another giant step forward, like the Civic Center did when it was built. IBI