The creation of a more vibrant and livable downtown takes center stage.
“It’s taken us a long time to get to this point,” said Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis, just prior to the grand opening of the Peoria Riverfront Museum and Caterpillar Visitors Center in the fall of 2012. “But this is not just a couple of projects, and then we’re done. This is going to be a new day. We’re really going to start to see a lot of things happening in our downtown.”
Indeed, the launch of the museum and visitors center, the redevelopment of the Hotel Pére Marquette, and the millions of dollars of infrastructure work in the Warehouse District have combined to build a solid foundation for the next stage of growth in downtown Peoria. Coupled with the long-time vision of private developers like Pat Sullivan, Joe Richey, Kurt Huber and Dennis Slape—as well as the impending announcement of Caterpillar’s plans for a new headquarters building—that next stage of growth lies just around the corner.
In particular, the Warehouse District is ripest for change in the near-term. For years, there has been talk of revitalization, but so far, most of us have seen only road construction—and all the inconveniences that come with it. But last October, an early taste of what looms on the horizon arrived with the opening of Sugar Wood-Fired Bistro at 826 SW Adams in the heart of the Warehouse District. The work of restaurateur Travis Mohlenbrink and building owner Dennis Slape, Sugar’s success has been off the charts by just about any measure, with enthusiastic crowds, day in and day out, offering rave reviews of its wood-fired pizzas and gourmet treats.
“It’s been remarkable,” says Peoria City Councilman Ryan Spain. “The fact that Sugar has a line out the door every day—at the worst time of the year, having opened with road construction all around it—I think it really shows the potential of the Warehouse District. People are so eager to come down and participate in a unique experience, and Sugar is proving how that works.”
Strong Cities, Strong Regions
“The key thing I’ve learned as I’ve started to do more work in downtown development is that ‘no one remembers a suburb,’” says Federal Companies CEO Bill Cirone. “It doesn’t matter how strong the suburb is, people only remember strong cities—strong cities and strong regions.” Along with Illinois Mutual President Katie McCord-Jenkins, Cirone co-chairs the Downtown and Warehouse Development Committee of the CEO Council, an organization of more than 65 area business leaders that shares services with the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce through the Greater Peoria Business Alliance. Over the last year, the CEO Council has begun to build a framework for development in downtown Peoria.
“The CEO Council wanted to define three or four projects to get involved with. Downtown development was number one,” he says, citing education, workforce development and the Greater Peoria Economic Scorecard as additional areas of focus. Last February, the organization began to examine how it could best apply its resources to the task. “We said, let’s not recreate the wheel. Let’s look at all the studies that have been done and see how we can maximize our relationship between the public and private sectors. Let’s make sure we are trying to hit our needs, whether they are cultural or entertainment or development needs… and look at what it’s going to take for downtown development to be successful.”
As the CEO Council got to work, a particularly memorable road trip to Des Moines—a metro area often cited as a model for regional cooperation—offered some lessons. That area’s economic development efforts are led by the Greater Des Moines Partnership, which speaks with a single voice across 20 affiliate partners to maximize resources for the entire Des Moines region. “We were able to see very quickly that they have built that regional behavior,” Cirone recalls. “They were the ones who coined it for me: that nobody remembers a suburb; they only remember a strong city or region.”
And regions do not exist without a strong central core—typically a downtown area. The work of Focus Forward CI, which is attempting to catalyze regional cooperation throughout Greater Peoria, goes hand in hand with focused downtown development, he says. “The downtown has a certain responsibility to be a leading force for regional growth. You cannot have a regional plan without an anchor. So how do you get that regionalization, but then, how do you feed the downtown?”
“Number one, you have to develop foot traffic into the downtown area,” Cirone explains. “You also have to make sure you are branded toward key downtown development, and you have to have an organization with an identity that works solely for downtown development.”
Building a DDC
The need for such an organization was reinforced last August by the visit of Brad Segal, a Denver-based consultant with over 30 years of experience in the area. After walking the downtown and meeting with key business leaders, property owners, elected officials and employers, Segal recorded the following observations:
- Downtown Peoria benefits from stable, committed anchor employers—including a Fortune 50 firm, two regional medical centers and a medical school with a top-tier cancer research center, as well as the nation’s largest medical simulation center—all of which recognize the importance of creating a more vital and livable downtown.
- Peoria has a strong concentration of civic facilities and investments, including the Civic Center, Dozer Park, Peoria Riverfront Museum, Caterpillar Visitors Center, the Marriott Hotel Pere Marquette and more than $30 million of infrastructure investment in the Warehouse District.
- Downtown Peoria has the raw material and scale to become vibrant—including a compact core that could easily accommodate a more walkable, bikeable and livable environment; a largely underdeveloped Warehouse District; and a critical mass of historic buildings that could become the heart of a vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood.
- Civic passion and focus is now directed toward downtown, and there appears to be a window of opportunity to benefit from being a top priority from city and regional leaders in both the public and private sectors.
Given his knowledge of successful initiatives in cities around the country, Segal recommended the creation of a downtown development corporation (DDC). “Peoria may be the largest American city without a downtown organization—an opportunity that allows it to borrow from best practices in other cities and engineer a new, state-of-the-art entity that can lead downtown’s evolution.” Today, numerous groups play a role in downtown development—the Downtown Advisory Commission, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Riverfront Association and Warehouse District Association among them—but none offer the dedicated resources of a full-time organization. The creation of the Downtown Development Corporation of Peoria, as it is known in its recently-filed articles of incorporation, will change that equation.
“The DDC will become the central source for developers and the central champion for downtown development,” Cirone declares. “It’s there to stimulate cooperation among public agencies and the private sector, and lessen the burden on local government. It’s to provide technical assistance, market research, project and site feasibility, and any information that will help developers with zoning and answer their questions… It’s to enhance the vitality of downtown by facilitating historical rehabilitation projects… and it’s to solicit from the community what they feel their overall needs are.”
“We need a development corporation that can facilitate certain types of projects,” adds Councilman Spain. “It can be involved in real estate acquisition, project financing… different development standards to make sure we have a high-quality project. We don’t have any of those things right now.”
Spain cites a recent scenario in which a DDC—had one existed—might have made a critical difference. A piece of property in the Warehouse District went up for auction, and the City of Peoria was interested in purchasing it. The city’s representative, however, had limited authority to increase its bid, thus losing the property to the bureaucratic nature of public decision-making. “For a small price, we missed out on an acquisition that could have been very valuable to the community,” the councilman explains. “The development corporation solves this problem for us. They operate in a different context, with the appropriate nimbleness to really facilitate development… They’ll also bring some sophistication to the financing and pro formas to help building owners understand the realistic values they can expect to receive from these buildings… and drive us to the right acquisition prices.”
A Signature Convergence
One concept being considered is the adoption of Washington as Peoria’s “Signature Street.” “Your most identifiable cities are known for a stretch of retail, pubs and restaurants where everyone who visits the city converges,” says David Henebry, architect/planner at Dewberry. “Peoria currently lacks this location. The vibrancy and synergy we seek—that other communities have—will not happen until we successfully string a minimum of four blocks of boutique retail, pubs and restaurants together.” Washington Street has been proposed to become that recognized location of convergence.
“We’ve identified a stretch on Washington, from Liberty to Spencer, as the long-term, 50-year designated stretch for the ‘Signature Street,’” Henebry explains. “The four blocks where we recommend development initially occur would begin at the Bob Michel Bridge and stretch south. The purpose of focusing on a four-block stretch initially, rather than the full street, is to concentrate enough development in a short time period to begin to witness the vibrancy at the street level as early as possible.”
Henebry cites current investments in the streetscape, sidewalks and infrastructure, as well as the size and composition of its buildings, as primary reasons for selecting Washington. When it reopens to the public, all the construction work that has disrupted traffic in recent years will begin to pay off. “Washington will look drastically different,” notes Councilman Spain. “When it shut down, in some places, it was a highway right through the middle of downtown. We had no sidewalks in some places… In others, there was a utility pole planted right in the middle of the sidewalk. It really was incompatible with the kind of residential, mixed use we want to create.
“The new Washington Street will be a place people can have an experience, instead of a racetrack to get from one end of town to the other as fast as possible,” he adds. “We want to have people walking and having a relationship with the buildings and the businesses inside of them. Adams and Jefferson will both have bike lanes, and Washington Street, though it won’t have a dedicated bike lane, will finally be a place where you could ride a bike.”
The city’s adoption of the “Complete Streets” paradigm serves as a guide for development of this emerging area. “A ‘Complete Street’ allows for equal use among vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians, with renewed focus on the pedestrian experience,” Spain explains. “We’re adding parking on streets that have never had on-street parking… and the streets will be populated with pedestrian furnishings such as bicycle racks, public art, flowers, trees… places for cafes and outdoor seating, all in a beautified setting that helps facilitate our ultimate goal: to attract people into this neighborhood to live here.”
Creating the Urban Environment
“One of the observations we divined out of the Economic Scorecard in 2012 was a significant gap of young professionals living in this region compared to our aspirational communities,” notes Spain. “One reason is that we don’t have the type of urban living experience in our downtown that you see in those communities.” A subsequent poll of young professionals in Des Moines and Omaha, commissioned by the Peoria Area Realtors Association, confirmed the importance of the downtown experience for this age group when selecting a community in which to live.
“We need to meet that group of people between 25 and 44 who want the downtown urban living,” declares Cirone. “They want the fabric and feel of the restaurants, the entertainment, and so forth. We have to develop a reason for the 25-to-44 year-old person to want to be in our community, and we’ve got to make sure we create an environment that serves those needs.”
Such an environment must include new options for housing, in addition to answering the retail, entertainment and service needs of potential residents. According to several studies, the demand already exists—even without these amenities. “Our studies show we could absorb 200 new residents every year, at all prices, for many years to come,” Cirone explains. “That’s how much pent-up demand there is.”
“I always say that a successful downtown is a three-legged stool, with a robust workday population, a strong visitor community and a strong residential component,” Spain adds. “We’re doing pretty well at two of the three… but we’ve got a long way to go on residential. We only have a few hundred people living downtown right now, even though we have market demand for a couple thousand. So the demand is very strong—we have a supply problem.”
Spain believes the housing issue might begin to be addressed as early as this year. “I think we’re getting close for some large projects to move forward,” he says. “Some of the buildings near Dozer Field could see development soon. These are amazing, massive buildings—the perfect type of place for loft apartments—and some are currently under contract for redevelopment. The goal is to add a couple hundred residential units to our marketplace every year for the foreseeable future.”
When that starts to happen, Spain expects a wave of businesses to spring up downtown and in the Warehouse District. “Businesses follow people,” he says. “There are restaurants interested in downtown… Creative businesses, like architecture and engineering shops and ad agencies—the people who populate this creative class, who care about having a work environment that is special and unique—those types of businesses are actively looking for locations downtown.”
Besides the success of Sugar, the announcement that Running Central will soon relocate to the riverfront location formerly occupied by the Illinois Antique Center is another early win. Combined with its sister company, RC Race Management, the move offers an intriguing glimpse at the potential synergies between the retail store and the events that will bring visitors and residents alike into the downtown—that critical first step toward building downtown vibrancy.
History, Culture and Community
The focus on Peoria’s downtown might also provide a boost to local historic preservation efforts, which have not always been viewed as a top priority. “If you look at any downtown with a legacy of development from the turn of the century, there is a certain amount of architectural beauty and cultural integrity… a legacy of historic buildings and businesses with roots downtown,” says Cirone. “There is a strong desire to be able to enjoy the history and culture, and the simple beauty of where cities began. There is a natural beauty that comes with the downtown, even if you just appreciated it for nothing more than its historic value.”
“I hope the entire state of Illinois appreciates the City of Peoria’s interest in historic preservation,” affirms Councilman Spain. “When the economy slowed down, we went to work on what was needed to make this area successful. The infrastructure investment was critical—we had to fix the streets to have any chance of making this work. But we also wanted to put our community in a better position to facilitate historic redevelopment and preservation.”
Several years ago, as plans for the Hotel Pére Marquette restoration were being developed, the city worked with state legislators to create a historic tax credit program. “Every state surrounding Illinois had a historic tax credit incentive; Illinois did not,” recalls Spain. “We are now one of five pilot communities with this incentive in place. Many of those older, historic buildings are gone now, but we have a real opportunity to preserve what’s left—and use it to set our community apart.”
The renewed focus on urban density and mixed-use development would appear to be a course correction to much of the development that’s taken place over the last half-century—during which businesses and residents all over the country fled downtown urban areas for the suburbs. The new vision for Peoria’s downtown—and the Warehouse District in particular—is to create a lively gathering place not unlike an old-fashioned town square.
“When I grew up, town squares were there for a reason,” says Cirone. “They allowed people to associate and experience different things—whether it was retail or eating or a service need—all within walking distance. There was a comfort in that. We’re working very hard to figure out how to rebuild some of that same environment… to instill that sense of community.”
New Mission Underway
As for Peoria’s new DDC, the CEO Council has formed the corporation and adopted the bylaws, Cirone says, “and over the next 60 days, we’ll begin to populate the board.” An initial round of seed capital is being put together, and candidates to lead the organization will be interviewed this spring. “We have strong support from the public sector, from Caterpillar, and from the medical centers for the initial investment. We know it will take about three years of supportive funding to get the DDC going, and then—whether it’s fees from real estate transactions, TIF money or other avenues—the goal is to find funding sources that will allow it to become somewhat self-sustaining.” Once it’s up and running, the DDC will begin to build a strategic plan for downtown development, potentially striking some early deals by the end of the year.
So how will we know if the organization is fulfilling its mission? A subcommittee led by CityLink General Manager Tom Lucek and Dr. Sara Rusch, regional dean at the College of Medicine, narrowed down a list of potential indicators. “There was considerable discussion about appropriate metrics,” Dr. Rusch explains. “In the end, we decided the single most important metric is the number of individuals living downtown. It shows that downtown is a vibrant place where people want to be. It means we’ve both built spaces for them to live, and that they’re selecting it to live—which means most of the amenities they desire are there, that it’s been priced accordingly, and that the range of options is appropriate. And when the people are there, that will bring more businesses.”
As the CEO Council’s work on the DDC winds down, Cirone is quick to credit key individuals for helping to put it together: David Henebry for planning and visioning, John Blossom for marketing and branding, Lucek and Dr. Rusch on metrics, Don Shafer on financing, and Don Welch for engaging the public and private sectors to work together. “I think we have put together an organization that really captures the best of what Brad [Segal] told us, the best of what Focus Forward is trying to get us to do as a region, listening to the voice of Des Moines and so forth, and making sure we are on a path that will find cooperation.”
The Shape of Things to Come
“I expect to see some very significant redevelopment agreements announced in 2014,” suggests Councilman Spain, citing strong interest from developers, both local and non-local, as well as businesses both new and existing. “As we begin to finalize specific projects, the timing can coincide perfectly with the completion of the street construction in 2015.”
In addition, Spain mentions a number of specific niches “that would add character and flavor to the Warehouse District,” citing the success of Rhodell’s, for example, as a model for new brewpubs. “We’re also working hard to get a distillery down there—which really speaks to the history of this area.” And with the city’s recent request for proposals to renovate the Madison Theater, another downtown architectural gem could tap into Peoria’s rich vaudeville history. “I’m looking forward to some creative ideas for what can happen on that block,” Spain says. “We need something that brings the Madison back to life, creates an attractive environment along Main Street across from the Pere Marquette, and does something on the [adjacent] parking lot of some magnitude.”
Meanwhile, the possibility of relocating the LST 325 naval ship-turned-museum to Peoria from its current home in Indiana will soon become a topic of discussion, while the probable redevelopment of Taft Homes would open up a whole new area near the riverfront. Combined with an ever-expanding medical community and Caterpillar’s plans for a new headquarters building, the coming years are sure to see a sea change in downtown Peoria.
“We’ve got the assets in place,” declares Cirone. “With the museum and visitors center—and the energy that Cat wants to put into downtown development—with our medical community, with the architectural sophistication in the Warehouse District, and with the river… all the ingredients are there to make this a tremendous success.” iBi