Build The Block

Riverfront Museum Sign

Having experienced the new Peoria Riverfront Museum and Caterpillar Visitors Center in various capacities now, I feel it is time for me to put my spin on it. Saturday night, the wife and I took in the evening showing of Skyfall at the Giant Screen Theater – which by the way, is aptly named.

We managed to wait months after the film was released to finally see it.  However, this venue and the project that made it possible (known as the “Build The Block” campaign) was 14 years in the making. Much adieu has been made about The Block over those 14 years, and it’s clear why people around these parts have mixed feelings.

The Block

Peoria Sears Block

In 1998, The Peoria City Council agreed to purchase what was previously known as The Sears Block. You got it, there used to be a Sears in the heart of downtown Peoria. Sears & Roebuck opened their doors on the site back in August of 1965. At that time it was heralded by civic leaders as “a key part of major downtown development.” (iBi) A 30-year lease agreement later, and Sears left the block for its new home at the Northwoods Mall just up the Interstate you see slicing through the city (does this vaguely sound like something that happened in your city?).

The aftermath wasn’t too kind to The Block and it sat vacant for years. In 2005, the block was razed. The remnants of the building gone. As you can see by the map above, which is still available on Bing maps, it is a very large part of the city.

To really understand the history of this block we must go back in time even further. Long before it was The Sears Block, it was home to Native Americans for some 12,000 years. Then, French settlers who had been in the area since 1673, staked their claim in 1812. The original street grid was laid out in 1823, and The Block was built. Over time many buildings filled the block and a mixture of businesses inhabited the block. Surviving flooding, fires, and changing times, The Block was amendable due to its mixed-use nature. That all changed in 1963, when 34 buildings were to be razed and 24 businesses forced to relocate due to that “the key part of major downtown development.”

Aerial Footage
Aerial Views of The Block via Peoria County GIS

The Plan

With such a large parcel of real estate to develop, the possibilities and uses of The Block would surely enliven this gaping hole in the city’s urban fabric. As leaders of the project began collaborating, it was apparent that everyone was thinking big. In 2003, there was an analysis and conceptual plan for The Block, created by the planning firm Duany Plater-Zyberk, as presented in the Heart Of Peoria Plan.

DPZ Museum Block
Heart of Peoria Plan: DPZ rendering of The Block

The Finding: The site of the now vacant Sears store occupies a critically important block and represents the most significant re-development opportunity in the downtown area.

Land available after razing The Block via Peoria County GIS
Land available after razing The Block via Peoria County GIS

The Recommendation: Develop a plan that makes optimal use of the whole block, taking full advantage of its central location as a crucial link between the Civic Center area and the riverfront. The plan should emphasize the following conditions:

  • A continuous view with a pedestrian passage down Fulton Street. fail
  • The Block must contain a mix of uses complimentary of the Museum, specifically retail and residential to enhance the vitality of the block and encourage efforts to become active 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. fail
8pm on a Saturday night
8pm on a Saturday night
  • The street frontages must be active. Water Street should have the highest level of pedestrian activity. Significant gaps in the street edge, low-laying structures, service uses and blank walls at the street edge contribute to a hostile environment unsuitable for street life. fail
Peoria Riverfront Museum
Active?
  • All parking must be contained within the block in order to remove inactive deck facades from street level frontage. pass/fail
Parking at noon during the week
Parking at noon during the week
  • Plots for future development must provide an attractive footprint size and orientation and allow for efficient layout of requisite parking facilities. fail
  • At a minimum, the building height is to be at least 2 stories in order to relate in scale to the urban environment. pass

Peoria Riverfront Musuem

  • All open space must be designed to be complementary to the urban context of the surrounding buildings and uses. fail
The Block
Water St. Entrance
  • The chosen architect of the Museum must be an acknowledged master, appropriate to the scale and importance of this civic site. meh

A Better Block?

This isn’t an opinion piece about what I think about the things on the inside. I enjoy museums, theaters, and cultural amenities. I fully understand their benefit to the community and the possible net economic gains that may come from them. Whether or not you like a display or exhibit is moot. Those can be easily moved or rotated as time goes on. If you aren’t impressed with the digital technology of the theater, that’s fine. It’s technology and it’s outdated by the time you take it out of the box anyways. If Caterpillar’s machinery and history isn’t your bag, no biggie. Don’t go to the gift shop.

We can all agree that a museum is a desirable amenity and that is a valuable asset to the region. This one is brand new, clean, shiny and it filled a void on a barren block. The cost, funding, attendance projections, and the need for it are all certainly relevant. Opposing a museum itself is senseless. Fighting about what goes on in the inside of the building is tedious. Even arguments about the exterior color aren’t worth arguing as that is a matter of taste. Understanding that what goes on around the outside the building is what makes or breaks the project.  Not applying good urbanism is a missed opportunity.

Heart of Peoria Plan - Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company
Heart of Peoria Plan – Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company

These mixed emotions are stirred up when people can’t seem to get to the root of their angst. The real problem with the museum is its form. Sometimes even the right ideas can take the wrong shape. The hardest realization we must face now is we can’t change it.

I submitted four different proposals with what could be done (and one that should be done) on the other side of The Block along the riverfront in Playin’ With Proposals. This was in reaction to what has now been built there, and now on The Block. It’s hard to stomach looking at a plan from a decade ago that would have addressed all of the downtown needs and handled them appropriately.

Heart of Peoria: Museum Block Site Plan
Heart of Peoria Plan: Museum Block Site Plan

Compounding mistakes only adds to the pain. A couple of blocks up Main Street, a half block of 2 story mixed-use buildings being torn down for the expansion/addition of a hotel. Thus, making that block even more single-use, and less of what downtown Peoria needs.

Had the “Build The Block” project been built on open land in the hinterlands with other development constructed afterwards it would be a different conversation. However, that’s not the case. This development was filling a vacancy in an urban built core. How it interacts with its surroundings is of the utmost importance. If anything comes from The Block, it is an education in how to better provide what is really needed for downtown Peoria and the city to thrive.

Even with all the fancy bells and whistles of modern gadgetry, sometimes the best way to build a block is just like what the character said to Bond when giving him a knife before the siege of the manor –

If all else fails, sometimes the old ways are the best.

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