A Publication of WTVP

A labor of love in the heart of the city…

Not far from Bradley’s campus, my wife and I bought a commercial building in an area most of Peoria might never think to travel. Our intention was to gut and remodel it into a three-bed/two-bath home for our family. In the fall of 2015, it seemed like a great idea. At various times throughout the project, not even I was sure it was the right decision. Now that we’re getting settled in, I’m more excited than ever about what it means for our family… and what the process showed us to be true about Peoria.

The Idea
It began when I showed some clients a building just down the street from a home I had sold them on West Armstrong, about a block and a half east of University and just north of Columbia Terrace. They were investigating an entrepreneurial endeavor, and the space represented a place to help that happen.

The building had sat dormant on the market for over a year. Constructed in the early 1930s, it once served a number of purposes, from auto body repair to office space, and most recently, a photo studio. Located within walking distance of shopping, restaurants and entertainment—and tucked back in the Columbia Terrace North neighborhood—the area has seen a resurgence in recent years due to the actions of various neighborhood associations, community leaders, homeowners and a thriving arts community.

The building—zoned for either residential or commercial use—was organized with office space in the front, a dark room and photo studio in the middle, and warehouse space in the back. The warehouse opened up to beautiful trusses that started at nine feet and rose to the roof’s peak at 15 feet; at some point, a small flat roof addition was constructed at its northeast corner. What had once been an overhead garage door was boarded up, and most of the window openings were filled with concrete blocks. A mixture of carpeting, vinyl tile and concrete floors; drywall and paneling; mismatched light fixtures; and acoustical drop ceiling tiles created the interior of the dark and stale building. Though it fell short of my client’s needs, the building continued to creep back into my mind. Thoughts turned to possibilities… as well as questions about what it could represent for me, for my family and for the area.

Getting my wife on board with the idea was the first task. As a Bradley alum and Peoria native, she has a real appreciation for this town, as do I, and we frequent the area often. When I moved from Chicago shortly after our engagement in 2007, I was excited to create a life for ourselves in Peoria. At the time, I was working toward my architectural license. In late 2010, that plan changed when I went to work for a residential contractor and builder. Shortly thereafter, I got my real estate license and started selling real estate… thus bringing me to the opportunity at hand: the ability to combine the areas of my career and interests into one project—the next step for our family.

The home also appealed to us on another level: inclusion. My wife and I coach Peoria’s youth wheelchair basketball team, the Peoria Wildcats, and she serves as executive director of the Heart of Illinois Special Recreation Association (HISRA), which provides recreational opportunities for people with disabilities for four local park districts. In addition, we have several friends who use wheelchairs and other mobility aids, so having a home they could visit and enjoy was a big part of how we define community.

The Design
Coming up with the design was a matter of defining how the home would best suit the needs of our family. We knew we wanted something open and modern (but not obnoxiously so), which paid homage to the history of the building and had the feeling of a downtown loft, with comfort as well. While still working out the details and doing due diligence, we went through countless sketches, 3D model alterations and dinnertime discussions. Where would the bedrooms be located? Bathrooms? Public space versus private space? What made sense in relation to utilities? Finishes? Lighting? Windows, and natural versus artificial lighting? There were many factors to consider.

The final plan consisted of a 2,100+ square-foot open floor plan with living and dining rooms at the front looking into a large kitchen, where we could have an island comfortable enough to fit my wife’s large family. Two bedrooms flank the kitchen, one of them serving as a guest room/office for our nontraditional work schedules. The back serves the home’s auxiliary functions, with the hall bath, utility, laundry room and linen closet. With no basement, we oversized the ceiling joists in the bedrooms to add storage space by ladder for easy access. We added a two-plus car garage off the kitchen with a hallway leading to the master suite. The master suite, located in the former gallery and flat-roofed portion of the building, contained a full bath with walk-in shower, double vanity and toilet room.

The Construction
The construction process naturally contains a lot of stressors, and this project was no different. Every aspect took longer than anticipated, and there was no portion of the building that didn’t require some kind of work.

Built By RJ, our collaborator, worked as our general contractor to determine the options at every turn, and our design stayed flexible. One day, I got a call from my assistant indicating that the ReStore had just received several new windows. In between appointments, I ran over and found a window with a small indentation on the upper-right interior priced at $200, which would ordinarily retail for $1,000. It replaced the double doors we previously planned to install, meaning the existing door would remain.Demolishing the interior meant deciding what to save and what to remove. About 90 percent of the interior materials were donated, reused or unfortunately, thrown away. Some walls needed to be reconfigured for different door placement or lengths. We were able to work with local code enforcement, who allowed us to cut the existing interior walls at the floor connections and reuse them elsewhere. I’m not sure this saved any time or money, but we liked the idea of not throwing away perfectly good materials.

A short time later, I learned that a family member’s company had just purchased a building with a commercial kitchen and asked if we could utilize any of the items they didn’t intend to keep. We were able to get two walk-in cooler doors and a three-basin sink from them, causing a slight redesign of the kitchen. To keep costs low, I did many of the interior finish projects myself, which added time and stress to the project, often requiring late nights or sacrificing sleep. Ultimately, the schedule suffered.

We had very few issues with code enforcement, short of one misunderstanding which resulted in a $500 check being returned to us after applying for a variance it turned out we didn’t need. We found the City Community Development staff and Councilman Chuck Grayeb easy to work with, responsive and receptive to ideas. My biggest issue with code enforcement had nothing to do with the people involved, but the philosophical issues behind renovating an old building on a budget in a middle-class neighborhood.

We understood from the start we would have to meet new building code standards. However, the frustration comes when doing so jeopardizes the project’s financial feasibility. It begs the question: Is it better that this building sit vacant, becoming a public nuisance or financial burden to the owner, rather than regain its best and highest use? Meeting the new construction standards took some additional creativity and engineering on my part, and that of our numerous talented subcontractors and friends. It also took a toll on the schedule. But the project brought us closer to some people and introduced us to a whole new group of others, as well as broadening our reach in the community and giving us a deeper appreciation for those who excel in their professions.

A Great Neighborhood
My wife, my daughter and I have met a lot of great people in the neighborhood. And I don’t know if it’s pure coincidence, but we’ve seen a lot of work happening around our neighbors’ homes as well. Dog walkers, families passing by (with and without kids), and the occasional motorist will stop to ask what we’re doing, and “why the heck here?” Our answer is pretty simple: We like this area and believe it has a lot to offer.

There are many people whose hard work makes this a great neighborhood, and the homes present a real value. A key example of that hard work is Dayspring Park, located just around the corner from our new home. It’s a privately developed park that began as a project by area residents Floyd and Bernadine Nolan. The question of schools also comes up, as it often does in my business selling real estate. The fact is, there are a lot of great options, and there’s time to have that discussion.

Throughout this project, we have been continuously reminded that Peorians care deeply about this town, where they live, work and spend their time. There are many beautiful homes and buildings with a rich history in our community, and a lot of people interested in revitalizing those homes and buildings, given the right opportunities and resources. We’re excited to start the next chapter of our lives in a home that is particularly suited to our family, our style and the way we wish to define what it means to live in our community. iBi

Mike Van Cleve is a Realtor with ReMax/Traders Unlimited.