A step in pulling together the aesthetic elements to transform Peoria’s Warehouse District into a true neighborhood.

America’s infrastructure is decaying and crumbling right before our very eyes. Even here in Peoria, you don’t have far to look to see signs of this for yourself. What were once monumental feats of human creation have become burdens for many state and municipal budgets. With these challenges set before us, however, also come many new opportunities.

Hold on… before your eyes glaze over, you don’t have to be an architect, engineer or construction manager to understand how important the many sidewalks, roads, bridges, lighting and all the other accessories are to make our everyday living possible. You also don’t have to be an art critic, historian or photographer to appreciate the beauty of the built environment. And no, you don’t need to be up on your local current affairs to know that Peoria’s streets have been in the news and art scene, with the city’s creative energy coming alive over the past decade.

Creating a “sense of place” is more than an amenity plus the road to get you there. It’s everyday people who make places. People connect with their environments very deeply. While you don’t have to be personally responsible for building the spaces around you, these places do help shape you. From Philadelphia to Portland and Minneapolis to Miami, it’s the citizens in the community who are playing a significant role in transforming today’s landscapes. In the new way of doing things, form doesn’t follow function; rather, context completes the equation.

These are important items to note here locally as we embark on the road to repairing, repainting, repurposing, building and beautifying this city. To be careful with spending is wise, but to be cognizant of design benefits our future selves.

Certainly, you can mix the elements of concrete, steel, metal and wood to complete a project. But at this unique point in history, Peoria could be poised to truly magnify the user experience of its downtown and nearby neighborhoods by tapping into all of your senses.

As Richard Florida, author and director of the Martin Prosperity Institute, noted in his 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class, the shift from a manufacturing economy to a more creative knowledge economy has already begun. As our own creative class grows, that art scene mentioned before has a chance to work on a blank and wonderfully big canvas. Currently, it needs that spark in the community to make that change possible.

Focus on the Warehouse District
Over the last several years, the Peoria Warehouse District has seen considerable attention from design professionals and urban planners, beginning with the 2002 Heart of Peoria Plan. This plan stressed a new-urbanist style of development, emphasizing urban density and walkability as key components of a successful neighborhood.

Fast forward to 2012, and shovel hit dirt as the city embarked on a massive three-year infrastructure improvement project that saw the complete reconstruction of Washington Street from a high-volume automobile thoroughfare to a much more intimate, pedestrian-friendly environment. This project also includes significant reconstruction of Adams and Jefferson streets, as well as many of the side streets. Central to this reconstruction is the inclusion of urban plantings, small “pocket parks,” and locations for artwork, on-street parking, and accommodations for pedestrian and non-vehicular traffic.

As part of the Warehouse District Implementation Plan released in 2013, there were some preliminary renderings as designs for “gateways” into the district. However, we know sometimes what makes it to paper doesn’t always make it to the street—thus, the need for a creative competition of sorts.

A Collaboration Opens Up
The Warehouse District Design Competition got its start when I was approached by Mark Misselhorn, a local architect. With his involvement on the City of Peoria Planning Commission and Downtown Advisory Commission, Mark has been a staunch advocate of the Warehouse District revitalization for a number of years. He knew me as someone who was also passionate, both as a professional and as a resident of the district. As a board member of the Peoria Section of the American Institute of Architects, I was also uniquely positioned to bring a reputable organization on board as the competition’s facilitator.

The Warehouse District gateways were originally proposed as part of the implementation plan, as a key branding and wayfinding element of the redeveloped neighborhood. Mark and I, along with steering committee members Nate Custer and Nick Viera, saw that momentum developed by the various road projects had generated a certain buzz and felt it was a key moment to seize upon that enthusiasm. These gateways, along with art installations like the Richard Pryor statue and the “Portal” sculpture, which has found its home in the new roundabout, seemed an obvious first step in pulling together the various aesthetic elements that will transform the Warehouse District from a collection of similar buildings into a true neighborhood.

Early in our discussions, we realized the importance of opening it up to more than just the architecture community. The Warehouse District is already home to a number of wonderful artists, and many planners, urbanists, designers, engineers, students and other creatives have left their marks on the district. If this is to truly be a competition focused on ideas, we should seek the widest set of perspectives that we can.

Our collaboration with Erik Reader, Anthony Corso and Katy Shackelford of the Whiskey City Collaborative and their Art + Infrastructure initiative brought to life the idea that this be only the first of a series of competitions to explore the various aspects of urban infrastructure that can shape an area’s character. Bike racks, pocket parks and other proposed aspects of the plan have the potential to shape the blank canvas of the district into a hub of vibrant urbanism in a way that Peoria has long lacked.

If there is one critical component of this competition, it is the intentionally vague constraints for the location and style of the gateways. Because so many different creative minds have many different viewpoints, we felt the true strength of the exercise was in each team’s ability to create their own definition of the District extents—and even what constitutes a “gateway.” Is it brick and wrought iron that spans across the road? Is it some sort of a formal portal? Is it a light installation with no physical component whatsoever? We encourage teams to be bold, creative and to think of things no one has thought of yet. iBi

To learn more about the Art + Infrastructure Warehouse District Gateway Design Competition visit thewhiskeycity.com/projects/art-infrastructure. For inquires or submission questions, email Cody Bornsheuer at [email protected]