The Great Deception

To my delight, upon moving to the Peoria Metro Area roughly one and half years ago, I had come across in many newspaper articles and heard talk that there was a New Urbanist development, led by Cullinan Properties and supported by the local city government that was about to take place in East Peoria, Illinois.

East Peoria, with its modest population of 23,402 persons [2010 Census], serves as a complimentary suburb of Peoria across the Illinois River, and is about 7 miles north of where I reside at the moment.  Due to its central location [map], development in East Peoria will undoubtedly have major impact many nearby areas for much of the next decade.

Such a significant development has gotten a lot of buzz, however, it hasn’t been sitting well with me. Please allow me to take you on a quick journey of why I feel what is being painted as a downtown couldn’t be further from the truth.

Downtown: A Brief History

Downtown’s have been described in many different ways by many different people. They are the heart and soul of towns and cities from large to small across the world. They are the faces and the places that everyone comes to identify with and form a close personal attachment to. Downtown’s have been the focal point of our societies since the dawn of civilization. Their forms have changed throughout centuries, unfortunately in recent years a decentralization of development has weakened the performance and identity of downtowns across the United States.

Decentralization, or the locating of building developments further from our traditional city centers, has been fueled by the mobilization of individuals by their use of automobiles. No longer are we tied to our city centers by needing to be within a walkable distance, a short bike ride, a quick bus trip, or near a train station to take us to the destination we are trying to reach. This technological advance has created an immense independence that has altered our landscape considerably.

Since the end of World War II, the standard building pattern of commercial, industrial, and residential purposes has been to separate each use and in doing so making them more easily accessible for automobiles. This style of development was a vast departure from urban planning and city design principles that were practiced dating back to the construction of ancient cities.

Coming off of a significant military triumph and coinciding with the return of soldiers, a new era of progress and unprecedented economic gains took place. At this time, many Federal policies and incentives were put in place to construct new single family dwellings and create commercial districts to fulfill the needs of the newly constructed residential units in areas further away from the older neighborhoods and existing infrastructure. Over the course of the past 67 years, a sprawling manner of development has occurred in most all metropolitan areas. Consequently, there have been many unintended consequences that have followed which cities had not previously faced.

Sprawl, as it has been labeled, has led to many cities left in a fragmented and fragile state. In nearly every one of these cities, the downtowns which previously boasted a lively, vibrant, and prosperous past have become desolate and left in a state of deterioration. As a result, these downtowns have become economically stagnant.

Attempts at urban renewal in decades past were a misguided attempt at alleviating the ills of the modern day society. These failed efforts at rejuvenating urban cores had pulled cities apart at the seams by its delicate social fabrics. Unfortunately, these endeavors were made with the laws and policies in hand that were governing the same modern-style developments that caused the injustice in the first place. In most all cases, urban renewal severely failed at its mission.

A New Trend Arises

Some cities were fortunate enough not to fall victim to cancerous developments or implement short-sighted urban revitalization attempts. These places have been studied over the same length of time, and are now held in high regard when discussing where trends in urban planning, city design, community development, and economic development are heading. Within the past 20 years downtowns have again been in the spotlight emphasizing redevelopment. As seen in successful cities across the globe, downtowns and urban environments are in fashion.

New Urbanism, as it is known, is a relatively new movement based on old principles of how cities should function. As described on the newurbanism.org [website],

New Urbanism promotes the creation and restoration of diverse, walkable, compact, vibrant, mixed-use communities composed of the same components as conventional development, but assembled in a more integrated fashion, in the form of communities. It facilitates an active community where in its residents all can have access to necessities within close proximity.

More importantly, it is built for people and to the human scale and built for a more sustainable future.

Although relatively new in most local city development conversations, New Urbanism is based on principles to be used in a wide range of developments, from small to large cities. These principles ensure that any city can easily apply them.

Principles of New Urbanism
  • Walkability
  • Connectivity
  • Mixed-Use
  • Mixed-Housing
  • Quality Architectural & Urban Design
  • Traditional Neighborhood Structure
  • Increased Density
  • Smart Transportation
  • Sustainability
  • Quality of Life

 Tacara New Urbanist Development – San Antonio, Texas

Labeling the development in East Peoria as a downtown, I have images that this downtown can be the classic black dress – that, if done right, can be timeless, functional, and always fashionable. A well-constructed downtown is one that serves multiple functions, can adapt to changing times, and inspires its residents. The same can be said of a black dress that is well-designed. If crafted and stitched well, it outlasts trends, and has a long and purposeful shelf life. Both downtowns and black dresses, if done right, spawn similar creations in the marketplace, style alternatives, and cheap substitutes.

East Peoria: Background

Geographically, the downtown and the city of East Peoria are bound by the Illinois River along its western border. It is intersected by Interstate 74 to the north and the 116 overpass and Bob Michael bridge to the south. The topography, with its bluffs and other land unable to be developed to the east allows for very little connectivity other than a few feeder roads into the main artery known as Main Street. The downtown is being constructed on the site of an old brownfield which had laid dormant since 1997. It was previously used for industrial purposes by Caterpillar whose main operations are headquartered right across the river in Peoria.

In order to begin to plan for a new downtown, many steps and actions had to take place years in advance to get the momentum started. In 1993, the Par-A-Dice Casino moved operations from Peoria to East Peoria. Revenues generated from the gaming industry spilled over into new developments along the Illinois River. Developments such as Walmart, PetSmart, OfficeMax, Lowe’s, Chili’s, Applebee’s, T.G.I.Friday’s, and various other chain restaurants, fast-food establishments, and national retailers took root.

The most recent in economic development news was the opening of a Bass Pro Shop [ARTICLE]. Due to the absence of an existing central downtown district and many natural land issues, other developments and residential construction had to locate further away from where East Peoria’s main commerce activity takes place.

As with most developments of the past decade a stimulus package including large incentives, tax breaks, and tax diversions have needed to be given [ARTICLE]. It’s safe to imagine that without such offerings these developments would otherwise come to fruition [ARTICLE]. Even still, with maximizing City contributions and leveraging the City’s future, the discussions regarding this new downtown development remain positive from the project stakeholders.

There have been assessments made from local community members such as, “This is going to be big for the future of East Peoria.” “This is a great use of what was previously unused land.” Members of surrounding communities have commented, “Look at what East Peoria is doing,” in comparing their own municipality’s efforts of economic development.

 

The Plan

In a public-private partnership between the City of East Peoria and Cullinan Properties, Inc., the plan for developing the downtown claims to embrace the principles of New Urbanism. With the infrastructure now in place, a few foundations have started to be built upon. The future retail spaces are gradually being filled, each celebrated as the next big thing [ARTICLE]. It has been announced that Target, Costco, Ulta Cosmetics, Gordman’s, Holiday Inn, and a flagship location of the Morton Community Bank are the prominent businesses to be locating within the downtown. In addition, the downtown will have a new library, new municipal buildings, a civic plaza, and a proposed museum.

On its very own website, eastpeoriadowntown.com, one is able to navigate through the development plans and see all the “progress” taking place. According to the website, this downtown development project seeks to,

Create a vibrant new mixed-use center for East Peoria by incorporating the fundamentals of New Urbanism in a way that brings together the three driving forces in the City’s life – Community, Commerce, and Technology. All of these developments past and present – within walking distance of East Peoria/Downtown.

Courtesy of Cullinan Properties

In what may be an unrelated occurrence, the T.G.I.Friday’s in a nearby commercial district recently closed citing, “unfortunate economic conditions.” Within the last week, Deals and Fashion Bug are slated to  be closing their doors. Only due to the proximity to the new development, can I deduct that it may be an indicator of future conditions. It may also be within reason to suggest that inducing demand by development might be an unsustainable practice. [Update: the T.G.I.Friday’s is now a GameStop]

For some additional interesting reads on the matter I recommend:

The Atlantic Cities article: Why Have So Many Cities and Towns Given Away So Much Money to Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s? [READ]

From Strongtowns.org: The Growth Ponzi Scheme [READ]

Analysis

My analysis, albeit a harsh one, is to provide a counter-argument where I will provide reasons as to why the development will not lead to the bright future many have predicted for East Peoria.  While the Cullinan and East Peoria plan is to embrace New Urbanism, what is currently being planned and constructed lacks many elements of the guiding principles. Its misguided attempt has a lot in common with failed urban renewal attempts of the past. It is a deception of style, purpose, and function, and hopefully it doesn’t get imitated in other communities as the effects will set those cities back even further.

Future bike trail disconnected from the rest of development.
Target & parking…of course

It is not my prediction that this downtown will be a catastrophic failure from beginning to end. On the contrary, it is making use of previously undeveloped land, putting people to work, and will open to much initial success and rave reviews. The point I am seeking to make is that the polish will wear off rather quickly and what will take place is what I see as growth without any growth. As most of the retailers set to open are already present across the river in Peoria, what is to be created is only a geographic shift in consumer spending. It is not creating a new shopping demand. Rather, it is only diverting current sales into a more convenient location for some consumers at their own tax expense.

The downtown stands in the shadow of Caterpillar’s East Peoria operations, is surrounded by existing commercial and industrial uses, and as such, does not have a traditional neighborhood layout. Most of the employees that have been coming to work in this area do so from a distance and by use of an automobile.

Without having an already present, residential base to draw from, it is near impossible to have a walkable, bikeable, or kid friendly environment. In addition, nowhere in the plan are there any residential units to be created.

The new “downtown” in East Peoria is nothing more than a suburban style, auto-oriented shopping center in a central location. It is a deception of what it claims to be, and because it is not universally understood what it takes to create a fully functional downtown, there will be consequences. These are the same consequences that have previously been noted time and time again with past urban renewal attempts. They will be felt down the road, and will be much longer lasting.

Municipalities are often slow to react, and the wheels of development coincide with a city’s ability to move. Often times when things are set into motion it is behind the demand of the present and is implemented using outdated ideas. Residents of any city will suggest that they want a more diverse range of retail, restaurant, and entertainment options. The form in which the East Peoria downtown development is taking shape is already 10-15 years behind the curve.

We have seen this form of development – the indoor shopping mall (where it is built all at once, and only constructed for consumer spending purposes) – fail all across the country. By substituting big-box general merchandise stores in place of anchor department stores and other national chains clinging around them is only changing the context – not the outcome.

Plenty of debate and speculation surrounds public investment, private interests, and outcomes. However, in nearby Normal, Illinois, a good illustration of how the principles of New Urbanism can be implemented is providing a model which bears repeating.

Normal has successfully attracted private development to pair with the town to create a Children’s Museum, a multi-modal transit center, and develop a new civic activities center. In addition, they have seamlessly sewn an old downtown district in with new mixed-use developments.

Uptown Normal

It is surrounded by traditional neighborhoods and has also incorporated new residential living into its plan for redevelopment. A focused effort has been placed on creating complete streets which promote biking and walking. Its close proximity to the Illinois State University campus provides a great opportunity to funnel innovative new energies into this setting. The Uptown Normal development complements other developments which act as the functional and traditional downtown in the core of Normal.

If the future of East Peoria is based on its downtown coupled with adjacent developments, the future may closely resemble its past. Downtown’s of the past were not only the centers of commerce but were also a breeding ground for innovative minds and entrepreneurial spirits. If current and future developments continue to depend heavily upon investment from outside the region, little hope is placed upon the people from within. Placing a lack of faith in the citizens of today will further widen the gap of education and skill within the community in the future. The City via the new downtown may be providing jobs in the short-term but little to no long-term growth will occur.

As an advocate of mixed-use, dense, multi-modal, and human scale developments – historic or not – I see little evidence that what is being developed in East Peoria as what can be construed as a lively and vibrant downtown. Nor is what is planned to be built embracing the commonly accepted principles of New Urbanism.

To those who have supported the cause without a full understanding, and to the all the proponents who say, “This is what the people want”… all I can say is Let Them Eat Cake.

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