“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” —Winston Churchill
During 2014, the City of Peoria will have the opportunity and challenge to act upon the above observation by discussing what the community could look like going forward. A series of City Council policy sessions will focus on topics like building design, sign regulations, parking lot and landscaping requirements, and design specifications for streets and streetscapes. Taken together, these are the elements that shape a community, for better or worse.
Nearly everyone has a favorite street or neighborhood—perhaps somewhere close to home or a place once visited on vacation or business. In most cases, the atmosphere created in those “special” places is not accidental, but the result of specific design and development guidelines. Visitors to these places may not notice the interplay between the public area—the street and sidewalk width; the placement of landscaping, furniture and lighting; accommodations for bicycles and mass transit—and the private area—the placement of buildings; the percentage of building fronts dedicated to windows; the type and size of signs—as the best-designed streets and neighborhoods integrate these elements in an unnoticeable manner. They are comfortable and attractive not because of any one design element, but because together, they present a place that is comfortable and attractive. The challenge is to establish development requirements and guidelines that promote the development of active, attractive streets and neighborhoods, without being so overbearing that no development occurs at all.
New Changes in City Development
The development regulations of a community can increase the success of private business, but by themselves cannot overcome a difficult or time-consuming development processing system. As such, the City will continue to focus on making its development review system as customer-focused as possible.
In 2013, a new Development Center opened on the third floor of City Hall. This single geographic location manages the issuance of nearly all development-related permits. In the past, customers were shuffled around multiple locations in order to receive even the simplest permit. The Development Center removes most of this shuffling, creating an environment in which the paperwork and City staff moves, but the customer only has to visit one office.
Numerous other changes were made to the development review system in 2013 with the goal of making the City a partner—as opposed to an adversary—in developing Peoria. This year will see an acceleration of changes designed to reduce the time and cost involved in turning the dream of opening a business into the reality of welcoming the first customer through the door.
The City’s re-established Economic Development Division will begin a comprehensive business outreach program, visiting businesses large and small to ask how the City can help make them more successful. Another important City Council policy session early in 2014 will involve the direction of a new, comprehensive economic development program for the City of Peoria, including decisions on programs and incentives for new or expanding businesses. A Business Improvement District (BID) program will also be launched this year, as will a new Enterprise Zone program based on new state regulations.
A “virtual permit” program will also be instituted, allowing building plans to be submitted for review far in advance of actual construction, thus eliminating the wait for a permit when the financing is in place. A series of easy-to-understand guides and online videos will be produced to help residents understand the development process and requirements without having to wait to speak to a City employee—although someone will always be available during regular business hours to answer any questions.
The City’s weekly One-Stop Shop will continue to be offered on Mondays at 1:30pm to anyone who wishes to discuss a development idea. The One-Stop Shop includes staff from multiple departments and representatives from the utility companies, and is completely free of charge to anyone who wants to attend. Acting on direction from the City Council, ordinance changes will be brought forward early in 2014 to combine the responsibilities of the Planning and Zoning commissions into a single, new commission. This change will reduce the number of steps some developments have to follow and increase coordination between the City’s long-range goals, as found in its Comprehensive Plan, and the short-range regulations found in the various land use ordinances.
Enhancements to the Development Center will also occur in 2014, with the end goal being a true, physical one-stop shop where anyone wishing to build a shed or subdivision can fill out an application; pay by cash, check or credit card at the point of application; and leave City Hall without having to visit more than one office. Eventually, these applications will also be made available online, so customers will only have to visit City Hall if they want to.
Growing Peoria: The Vision Statement
Peoria continues to grow, weathering the recession better than many cities. Over the past three years, nearly 500 new single-family houses have been built in Peoria, constituting a third of all new housing in the Tri-County Area. During the same period, more than 13,000 permits were issued for activities as varied as improvements to individual homes to the construction of the new training center at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center. In total, these permits represent approximately $700 million worth of building and development activity over a three-year period in which many communities saw virtually no development. Private development growth continues to be strong in Peoria, from the smallest bathroom remodel to the rehabilitation of the Hotel Pere Marquette.
Where does the strategy of using design guidelines to shape a community meet with the actual investment of development dollars—perhaps in the Warehouse District and downtown? While the great majority of development investment in Peoria comes from private sources, the City has strategically focused its public infrastructure investment in areas we believe are primed for future private investment. The newly-designed and installed streetscape and existing design standards of the Warehouse District represent a perfect example of combining the Comprehensive Plan’s vision statement to “grow Peoria” with substantial public investment in a neighborhood in order to shape it, so that it may in turn shape many generations to come.
As the City explores potential changes to development guidelines and regulations, we welcome input from the community. Think of your “special” street or neighborhood and let us know what makes it special to you. Consider the last time you interacted with the City on a development—large or small—and tell us what we could have done differently. Shaping a community is a participatory endeavor, and we look forward to your partnership. iBi
Ross Black is director of the Community Development Department for the City of Peoria.