A Publication of WTVP

‘They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot’

by Linda Smith Brown | Photo by Ron Johnson |
An empty lot awaiting development at State Street and SW Washington
An empty lot awaiting development at State Street and SW Washington

Songwriter Joni Mitchell was clear in her sentiments, but does Downtown Peoria need more asphalt, less, or something in between?

Reader quiz: Does Downtown Peoria have: A) too much parking B) too little parking or C) parking in all the wrong places?

For Michael Freilinger, president and CEO of Peoria’s non-profit Downtown Development Corporation, the answer is C) parking in all the wrong places.

Parking may seem like a mundane matter, but it’s at the center of a national debate as municipal leaders look to revive moribund downtowns brought low by COVID and to rethink what puts pedestrians back on sidewalks and shoppers and diners back in their stores and restaurants. While one camp insists that you almost can’t have enough convenient parking, the other sees acre upon acre of ugly, unproductive, expensive (to build and maintain), impermeable, heat-trapping, unnecessary, uninviting and too often unoccupied asphalt and concrete.

So, should downtowns be built for people or for vehicles? Is Peoria ahead of the curve or behind it?

Depends on who you ask, of course.

More parking coming to Downtown Peoria

Freilinger concedes that the core business district of Downtown “probably” has enough parking. The current number of office vacancies has resulted in vacant stalls in parking garages.

But parking in the Central Business District will never go to waste, he says. “When the Central Business District is developed, there will be a need for residential parking and commercial parking, plus people who come Downtown for the occasional event.

“But if you go down in the Warehouse District, where all the development is happening now, we need parking,” Freilinger said.

As the district’s name implies, the buildings being redeveloped are old warehouses constructed between 1880 and the 1920s, when most Peorians did not own a vehicle and there were few employees working in those buildings at any one time. Consequently, parking wasn’t on anyone’s radar.     

Now, those repurposed warehouses can have 100 units of studios, one-and-two bedroom apartments and lofts, with residents who want parking reasonably near their front door.

Freilinger is the guy who wants to make sure they have it.

“I represent developers and developers care about their tenants and their tenants need parking,” said Freilinger. “If you don’t have the amount of parking available that a developer thinks he needs, he’s not going to develop. That’s just a fact.”

Banks, meanwhile, won’t even give financing to a redevelopment project that doesn’t have enough parking, he said. “Developers will take their money and invest elsewhere.”

Soon to be developed are 300 parking spaces to accommodate those Warehouse District developers. They’ll be located behind the buildings along SW Washington Street, from State to Persimmon.

“The city is spending $9 million for purchasing the land and developing the site for parking,” said Peoria City Manager Patrick Urich.

“In the agreement to purchase the land, a portion will be dedicated for business parking and spaces available for lease through National Garages,” the same company contracted to manage the city-owned parking decks Downtown, he said.

In addition, the DDC and the City of Peoria have identified the site for a future parking deck in the Warehouse District.

Urich pegs the cost to construct the deck at $12 million. The city has asked its legislators to assist in securing a state grant to cover the cost of construction. However, Urich is not prepared to recommend that city taxpayers subsidize more parking. “Developers should subsidize parking,” he said. “The city has tapped itself out to help with parking and can’t do any more.”

Elsewhere Downtown, there’s sufficient parking in the Central Business District, and thanks to the two Downtown hospitals, there’s plenty in the Medical District, he said. Meanwhile, plans to redevelop Riverfront Park has City Hall in discussions about parking with the various stakeholders there, including merchants, many of whom have adapted.

“Sometimes, parking is a challenge here,” acknowledged Shannon Cox, executive director of the Peoria Art Guild, which often holds its classes in the evenings and on weekends as a result. “People just have to get used to the fact they’ll have to park and walk a block or two.”

Downtown, ‘a very nice place to park’

Research what’s happening in other cities across the country and listen to what more than a few urban planners nationwide are saying, and you get a different story: Downtowns need to be less automobile-oriented and more people-oriented, with far more thought given to long-term fiscal efficiencies.

To this end, notable planners such as Chuck Marohn, founder of the non-profit organization Strong Towns, advocate abolishing all minimum parking mandates and subsidies. (By the way, Peoria has eliminated many of those parking minimums.) He’s been to Peoria and views it as very much over-paved, especially Downtown.   

“Peoria’s visitors must see it as a very nice place to park,” Marohn said.

The municipal planning corporation Urban3 did an analysis on Peoria and parking was a dominant theme, according to the Strong Towns website. Josh McCarty at Urban3 wrote, “The pavement is oppressive there. They have, what I’d call, a Midwestern attitude about land: It’s flat and it’s endless.”

As such, the idea of any city building more parking garages or paved parking is distasteful to Marohn, who incidentally comes out of an engineering background.

“The idea we should be building big parking ramps … or making further adjustments accommodating people coming from way outside Peoria … as if that is the answer to Peoria’s problems, is a very old idea,” said Marohn. “And if you just look at how it’s played out on the ground there, it’s not worked out well for Peoria.

“What has treated you well, and I think if you go back in history, the peak of Peoria’s preeminence as a city was when you had a downtown and surrounding neighborhoods that created a surrounding ecosystem,” said Marohn.

“People in the core neighborhoods around downtown are being considered as an afterthought,” he said, yet “they’re more financially productive. They’re paying more taxes per square foot and contributing more to the overall health of the community balance sheet than the places out on the edge that are more affluent.

“They cost less to serve. They have less cost per foot of public investment.”

Marohn poses a different question: “Those people who are driving Downtown to work in those buildings, why wouldn’t they want to live closer to those buildings? Why would they want to drive?

“In really successful cities, those neighborhoods are attractive to those people.” 

Meanwhile, there are environmental considerations, as hard surfaces absorb heat and release gases, contributing to global warming. Unfortunately, they don’t retain water, which also is an issue in a Peoria that is under a federal order to keep waste water that mixes with stormwater out of the Illinois River, and will be spending upwards of $200 million to see to it.

Déjà vu

It’s not the first time the locals have butted heads over parking. In the late 1960s, as Peoria was getting a new Courthouse, the Peoria County Board wanted to surround the building with a blacktopped parking lot. “A group of spirited citizens campaigned so forcibly that the County Board cancelled its plans,” recalled Jerry Klein in his 1985 book, Peoria! Landscapers were hired instead. The result was today’s Courthouse Plaza. Was the correct decision made?

If parking once upon a time seemed like a no-brainer, well, it turns out to be a bit more complicated. Who knew? Can Peoria do it better, smarter, less visibly, more attractively? Let the conversation begin.

Linda Smith Brown

Linda Smith Brown

is a 37-year veteran of the newspaper industry, retiring as publisher of Times Newspapers in the Peoria area