While downtown renovation projects sprout up across the country, few communities are afforded the opportunity to create a downtown from scratch. Yet that is exactly the situation in which East Peoria finds itself. With the East Peoria/Downtown 2010 project taking shape, the city has a unique chance to create something that will set it apart.
In 1997, Caterpillar Inc. tore down and began demolishing the company’s very first factories, which had become obsolete. After the plants’ demolition, more than 86 acres of land, loosely bordered by the Bob Michel and Murray Baker bridges, Main Street and the Illinois River, sat unused in the heart of East Peoria, patiently awaiting a new life. In August 2001, the city announced its plans to revitalize the area, with at least some tangible beginnings of the project to be put in place within two years. East Peoria City Attorney Dennis Triggs emphasized that, while the project was ambitious, they were already developing plans to build.
That was back when the city thought it would receive nearly $13 million from the State of Illinois to construct the two roads which were to become the main thoroughfares of the new development— Technology Boulevard east to west and a northern extension of Edmund Street.
In late 2003, plans for the space were updated to include a Caterpillar Heritage Museum, which would feature a rotation of early Caterpillar machinery. The museum would be maintained and supported by a nonprofit organization committed to the project. Given the site’s long history with the company, it was an ideal location for such an attraction.
January 2004 brought more concrete ideas to the table. Technology Boulevard and Edmund Street, renamed Heritage Drive in conjunction with the museum, were to be built in what would officially be called the Peoria Area Technology Park. The park was envisioned as a Downtownplace where high-tech businesses that graduated from the planned Peoria NEXT Innovation Center could go after their incubation period ended, creating another strong bond between the cities of Peoria and East Peoria. The idea appeared solid, but the concrete never came.
Today, however, the old Caterpillar site awaits rebirth as what will amount to a new downtown under the title East Peoria/Downtown 2010, a project the city began this summer when it hired Cullinan Properties Ltd. of Peoria to serve as master developer.
Four Lost Years
East Peoria/Downtown 2010 Project Manager Rick Jeremiah has had his hands in the project for some time now, serving as the city’s public works director before signing on with Cullinan. “When this project started in 2004,” he said, “the governor came to East Peoria and committed to supplying money to build the infrastructure on the site—all the roadways and utilities, etc. That was [to be] in a new capital budget for the State of Illinois.”
Yet, the state has been unable to produce a capital budget since 1999, a roadblock which has stymied the site’s development for the last four years. “The state did come up with $2 million of the original $13 million that they promised the City of East Peoria, and that money was used to start the infrastructure of the site and install water mains and sewers,” explained Jeremiah.
But conflicts between Gov. Rod Blagojevich and state legislators, in addition to an ongoing budget crunch, have prevented the rest of the funds from being distributed. According to Jeremiah, “[the money] is still identified in the state’s capital plan and public works budgets, but the state still hasn’t figured out how they’re going to play well together and provide that money.”
Understandably, the City of East Peoria grew weary waiting for funds that may never come. Determined to move forward with its signature project anyway, it began to explore public-private partnerships.
Finally Moving Ahead
In January 2008, the city issued requests for proposals (RFPs) from private development firms. After receiving just two, one of which was withdrawn, Cullinan Properties became the main developer of East Peoria/Downtown 2010.
“The City of East Peoria and Cullinan are holding hands on this,” said Jeremiah. “We’re the master developer; we’re helping the city develop the vision and find the people who want to develop in the site. Whether we develop it and deliver it to the city, or whether another broker comes in with an idea for the site, we are the conduit between the public and private sides.”
Cullinan has put together an ambitious framework for development of the site, complete with visual renderings. Its vision, “Where Community, Commerce and Technology Come Together,” incorporates many of the principles of New Urbanism, with aesthetically pleasing, mixed-use buildings, a pedestrian-friendly landscape design and shared public spaces. “Community will be preeminent as this new downtown becomes the centerpiece of the revitalized core of the city,” explains the official East Peoria/Downtown 2010 website.
Included in the new downtown will be a mix of “big box” and local independent retailers. To fill the need for large amounts of continuous spaces, plans show about five office buildings which will house technology and financial service companies among others. Tourist attractions will include the still-planned Caterpillar museum, unique storefronts and quaint sidewalk cafes. Some residential housing may be included if it fits easily into the flow and feel of the area.
Putting its money where its mouth is, Cullinan Properties has committed to building a new office building for itself, which will serve as a cornerstone of the site. The City of East Peoria is the other committed tenant, with plans to create a civic plaza featuring a new City Hall as a second cornerstone. A new Fondulac District Library is also envisioned. “While there are no [additional] committed tenants with signed contracts,” Jeremiah told us, “Cullinan has talked to and sent out letters of intent to several possible companies and has several interested parties.”
Community, Commerce and Technology
Cullinan’s plans offer architecture and landscaping which will help define streets and shared public spaces. Motorists and pedestrians alike will find the new downtown inviting. Its design will be open and accessible and, above all, emphasize that East Peoria’s new downtown is a safe place where workers can spend time outside on lunch breaks and families can go at night.
According to Cullinan, “Commerce has been and will continue to be the centerpiece of East Peoria’s vitality and will be appropriately recognized.” Multi-tenant office buildings, new restaurants, specialty shops, healthcare offices and small service businesses will all be represented, and special events hosted in the space will create a welcoming atmosphere. Such a mix will help to ensure that visitors will frequent the downtown on weeknights and weekends in addition to the work week.
Technology is another key component of East Peoria/Downtown 2010, and the project will be able to make use of the robust infrastructure already in place in the area. It is perfectly situated to take advantage of fiber optic cables already installed by three of the major players in the industry: AT&T, Sprint and Wilco. “The site is basically surrounded by the major fiber carriers, and the city’s intent is to leverage that access and provide that next level of service to people locating in the site by having a direct connection to the worldwide, national backbone that’s in place,” explained Jeremiah.
Investing in Itself
Several years ago, East Peoria proved it is willing to invest in itself when it increased its sales tax by a quarter of a cent to generate money badly needed by the city’s public school districts. The city became a funding mechanism for its own schools, which, according to Mike Smothers, communications specialist with Cullinan, is similar to what they are doing with their new downtown. The city’s partnership with a private development firm showed this willingness to invest in itself once again.
There are currently two identified phases of the project. The first, expected to be complete by 2010, includes the new Cullinan Properties office as well as the civic component, or civic triangle, as Cullinan has labeled it due to its triangular shape. Also included are the roads that will make those buildings accessible. The city and Cullinan now plan three new thoroughfares for the project’s main 66-acre site—Technology Boulevard, an extended Edmund Street and another east-west intersector, Commercial Drive.
The remainder of the retail and office space will be developed in a second phase that will start moving forward as soon as tenants are lined up and committed. “It’s safe to say it’s two phases to start,” said Jeremiah, “but when you get right down to it, with the economy the way it is and the way things are moving right now, it might end up being three or four phases before it would be fully built out.”
What began nearly a decade ago as ideas—dreams, even—is finally seeing some follow-through and concrete plans. Not just a revitalization project, East Peoria/Downtown 2010 offers the city a unique opportunity to create something entirely new from scratch. As the project takes shape, it is poised to have a major impact on economic development across the region for years and decades to come. For more information, visit eastpeoria2010.com. iBi