The City of Peoria recently issued a Request For Proposal (RFP) for the use of the Powell Press Building located at 110 NE Water Street in sunny Peoria, Illinois. Since I cross paths with this building on a frequent basis, I thought I might chime in my own ideas of development while opening up the forum for discussion.
A Little Background:
Currently, the Powell Press Building is being used as the Peoria Riverfront Vistors Center, operated by the Peoria Convention & Vistors Bureau, and owned by the City.
A quick history per the PCVB website:
The RVC was originally built in 1852 and is the only pre-Civil War commercial structure still standing in Peoria. The 157 year-old building was first built as the John Schwab Grocery and Beer Saloon. In 1852, John would sell ice cream for 15 cents a dish and beer for a nickel!
The Beer Saloon became Phillips Best Brewing Company, where beer was not only served but brewed and bottled. Beginning in 1917, the building would turn hands every few years from a toy factory in 1979, to a soda parlor, church, tire store and in 1948, the Powell Press. The Powell Press operated until 1979.
Caterpillar Inc. bought the building in the 1980’s and donated it to the city of Peoria in 1997 to be used as part of the riverfront revitalization project. The building was physically moved 2 blocks down the road, from the 200 block of N. Washington, to 110 N.E. Water, in Riverfront Park where Main Street meets the riverfront. The move took 16 hydraulic jacks and a prayer – only losing one brick, the move was a success! Today, the building stands as the Peoria RiverFront Visitors Center.
So there ya go, as of 1997 it stands as a formal brochure stand, albeit a fine looking one. After 161 years of hard labor, a move, and various purposes – it is ready to get back to work.
Now, before I go into why I think this building is ultimately better served in another area along the riverfront, I’ll just say that I’ve only been in this building once. I went in looking for some Peoria-esque postcards and came out full of disappointment.
Despite not getting what I came for, I came out with an appreciation for the preservation of the building and how it has the potential to serve the community for many more years to come. The most important thing to remember, is that it has already been saved from the wrecking ball and is able to carry the burden of previous urban mistakes without saying anything.
Peoria seeks to improve the vibrancy and economic production of the Peoria riverfront. The Powell Press Building, herein known as “the building,” is a valuable asset to the direction in which civic leaders and citizens alike see the future of downtown trending. In order to capitalize on the unique offerings of the region and create a special experience the City must ensure that any proposed developments blend a mixture of uses to ignite a true 24/7 street life.
The riverfront of Peoria has been at the center of many studies, and many plans have been laid out for possible future development. By not trying to re-create the wheel and harness the expertise of past and present efforts, this proposal is grown from seeds that have been planted from hours of professional and conventional urban wisdom.
One such study, the Heart of Peoria Plan, completed in 2002 by the planning firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ) states:
the crucial need for the scope of these projects along the riverfront to have an appropriately urban character, and that it not waste the opportunity to bring a mix of uses that will help activate Peoria’s downtown both day and night.
Future of Powell Press:
Currently, the building serves one primary function – as a tourist information center and souvenir store. It is also the site of a bike/segway tour company, but that is limited to seasonal months.
Unfortunately, due to its location of being off a convenient path of travel for most visitor’s, the building is not operating at its fullest capacity. Unless you are a visitor who knows exactly where the building is, you are not very likely to just happen upon it. Not much other attention is called to the building as it sits as another fragmented piece of isolated components that just so happens to be by the river.
There are likely four outcomes from proposals of this site. One is to insert another business. Another is to add a business and improve programming of events and activities. It could be possible to build around this building while incorporating new uses. Or the last, to move the building from where it stands today and re-imagine the space.
Proposal 1: Insert New Business
The building and its location are attractively located along the Illinois River, near the Caterpillar Visitor Center, Peoria Riverfront Museum, and Riverfront Park while being in close proximity to the downtown. The first floor has 1,500 sq. ft. of space, the second floor mimics the same spacial dimensions, and there is some storage space above in the attic.
What kind of business could be supportive to the other uses nearby while also being able to support itself?
Restaurant? Probably not big enough for a full-scale eatery and not equipped at the moment. Something small-scale offering ice cream, coffee, donuts or pastries could possibly suffice.
Retail? Maybe, but there are no other stores to maintain the needed frequency. For example, no mall has just one store…
Office? Certainly, if one doesn’t mind being on their own island. Doesn’t mesh well with other uses nor is it very conducive for future growth.
In all likelihood, the cost prohibitive-ness of opening a full-scale restaurant and lease agreement for office use would leave it up to something on a smaller scale to open. Being that the park surrounding the building is based heavily upon seasonality and limited event programming, it might be difficult to sustain business 12 months out of the year.
Proposal 2: Add Another Business & Increase Programming
Add another business? Incorporate a new business such as one of the small-scale options listed above while keeping the Visitors Center functionality. A shared space if you will. Increase Programming? The surrounding open space is used for spring, summer, and fall events and festivals, riverboat tours and is combined with seasonal recreation uses. Adding more of this, especially during winter months is a way to reactivate a dead space during colder months.
Business: Interest has been sparked by a local ice cream shop in neighboring Peoria Heights [Single Scoop] [Double Scoop] inhabiting in the building. While this is good news on the surface, it still faces the problems above. The second floor space wouldn’t be utilized to its greatest potential therefore, the office function of the Visitors Center could still be used for the same purposes.
Rearranging the floor plan to suit both functions would be beneficial to both business and tourism. One wall would be enough to hold brochures, maps and memorabilia while drawing people to the business. Likewise, the business is served by a steady stream of new visitors.
Programming: Events in the area do not contribute to the full 24/7 experience that is needed in an urban core. However, the current calendar of events does generate much-needed activity. Here are the activities currently provided [EVENTS].
Adding attractions and events to the area are sure to bolster the draw and could include:
An outdoor ice rink similar to the offerings of Millenium Park in Chicago. During winter months in the adjacent parking lot could fill a missing void. A partnership between the Peoria Park District could be optimized to reinforce collaboration.
A one-time use event could be established. Having an outdoor New Year’s Eve celebration like those that take place on Times Square in New York City could be a regional tourism draw. The ball could even drop using one of Caterpillar’s heavy machines found in their location across the street.
Food truck, food stand, and pop-up restaurant park. Food trucks have been hard to locate around the City due to neighboring business complaints. Food stands and food carts have been a popular dining option for downtown workers when weather permits. Pop-up restaurants using creative repurposed materials can spur innovation as seen in Austin and Portland. Ideally, this park would be situated at the circle drive where Main Street terminates at the riverfront. This temporary draw would be mutually supportive.
*There is no doubt in my mind that this will be the proposal selected.
Proposal 3: Build Around The Building
Future plans called for creating a more functional downtown experience. Increasing and adding a mixture of buildings and uses would be the best approach to future expansion of the riverfront and downtown. Because there are so many assets of single-use on neighboring blocks it must be considered to retain this building as it is functioning today, all while building around it.
For the same difficult reasons mentioned in Proposal 1 of finding a suitor for this building, it must be noted that building a true Riverfront Village with new and cooperating uses is severely needed.
Capitalizing first, on Proposal 2, would allow for an increase in development potential and feasibility for this Proposal to be realized.
Proposal 4: Move It
I heard the pin drop, the needle scratch the record, and the siren go off… History lovers, landmark lovers, and building preservationists jaws are still hanging low after a suggestion like that. After all of the hard, painstaking work it took to move it – I understand [Old Location]. You inherently know how important this building is, and how important the story it has to tell to future generations. I get it – I’m with you!
Could it be that the best use for this building and this space is not what it is right now? Yes. For this particular Proposal there is no set timeline, no projected revenue spreadsheets, and no clear civic understanding why it needs to happen. So let me explain.
We understand the history of the building. Check. We understand why it is important to preserve buildings. Check. We understand how important the river is to the past, present, and future of Peoria. Check.
Now let’s do something that embraces all of those things while making the sum of its parts greater than each individual piece. The rub on this Proposal is that we have to do it right. We have to understand why what we have previously tried to do hasn’t worked nor will it work as we think. It’s not a failure, but a learning lesson. Cities allow us to make mistakes and take chances, that’s why they are so celebrated.
I will agree that there are a number of succesful pieces in and around this area. Some pieces that are quite attractive (and others that aren’t), it’s just the overall effect is not of sufficiently high quality. That is the the bottom line. For a lively and vibrant 24/7 downtown Peoria NEEDS people and human activity.
With limited riverfront space, and limited downtown space, it is crucial that this area and space be urban and mixed-use. No, not sub-urban and single-use. This is it. This is one opportunity to reclaim what a downtown is and what this downtown should be.
A plan needs to be developed to maximize this opportunity and optimize this space. That may sound like rhetoric, but it is the best logical way I could put it. The quality of this space is lacking here. It’s kind of meh right now. Coming down Main Street to the river is this measly evergreen tree to greet you. BFD. You get the feeling like you should be in an important space, but you can’t figure out why it doesn’t feel right. Feng shui, no way.
…So here’s is what we can do to better achieve spacial symmetry, ignite activity, and build towards a brighter tomorrow.
Move: the Powell Press Building to the corner of Main Street and the access street. This will bring together the space and set it prominently on the corner where it can greet people as a focal point. Open it as a dual function Visitors Center/Small Scale Shop.
Build: develop the land adjoining the building and use a building style and aesthetic that is similar throughout which will add much needed continuity.
Bulldoze: tear down the existing “Riverfront Village” structure. Even if the storm of the century hits and this somehow remains, we probably won’t drive down to any office or seafood restaurant built on stilts.
Rebuild: develop this space and the nearby parking lot to include a mix of retail, restaurants, office, and residential with parking located between the buildings to disguise it. This will repair unused street life and activate it with what people expect to be in a meaningful space.
By now, I’m sure you saw what I did there. It’s not enough just to consider the ordinary solution to a complex problem. All four outcomes are in play. For the City to get the yielded results they desire from their hard work and for the citizens to be left with a meaningful and functional downtown it can’t just be business as usual.