Middle Ground

Like a radio DJ, I take requests. With the recent uproar here in Peoria about Walmart wanting to develop a Supercenter on park grounds in the middle of the city, I’d like to put my spin on the record.

Before we go on, no, this is not another attempt to bash Walmart. I’m not too fond of them, and if you’ve read my previous posts you’ll know I’m not an advocate of what they bring to town.

Walmart, our favorite mega-corporation downstream, has attracted this type of attention plenty of times throughout the country and isn’t new to community debate. While they lure us in with their low, everyday prices, we don’t want to sacrifice our community’s livelihood in the same foul swoop. We all need a little extra money from week to week, so we end up biting on the line.

Peoria, like many cities across the country, faces budgetary concerns in most, if not all of its governing bodies. The interesting piece of this story is not that Walmart wants to develop on prime real estate, but that the land they are seeking, known as the Peoria Stadium, is owned in a partnership between Peoria School District 150 and the Peoria Park District.

District 150 is entertaining this idea due to shortfalls in their budget and projected tough times ahead if they don’t get creative. The Park District has plenty of other parkland throughout the city that they need to program with activities, and since this spot isn’t a huge generator of revenue for them they could entertain parting ways with some of it.

This saga emerged due to poor communication between the powers that be and area residents. It’s the typical “everyone working in silo’s” that has been going on for a long time here (See: need for Focus Forward CI initiative). Eventually, when the Peoria residents caught wind of these plans they immediately voiced their concerns. There is even a Facebook page that has over 3,600 likes.

Say No To Walmart At Peoria Stadium

It’s easy to let emotions run high and make hasty decisions in the heat of the moment. The Peoria Journal Star and other outlets have taken a fairly even-keeled approach when reporting this story so as to not let the pot bubble over.

Here are some links to catch you up to speed:

Indeed, this is a complex situation which no one is looking good right now. District 150 reeks of desperation because they are in a financial crunch. The Park District has been mum due to the fact that repairs to the neglected, under-used facility have been estimated at $5.5million and are locked into a 30-year lease agreement with D150. The City of Peoria takes the heat because it seems like yet another backroom deal, which in fact they didn’t initiate but they always get thrown into the conversation. Ultimately, they do have the final say in the matter per the need to approve the zoning and site plans. The citizens, tired of past negligence, and tired of being pushed around, come off as the NIMBY’s who just wants things to be left alone.

And of course, there are a lot of questions. What happens to this greenspace? What happens to the location on University Ave. which Walmart is rumored to be vacating? Financially, how will this benefit the governing bodies? How will this impact the surrounding neighborhood?

Stadium Map
Current Walmart location & proposed site

How do we make this a win-win for everyone?

Yes, it can be done. No, it won’t mean that this site will be kept exactly how it is today. We have gotten to this point due to our belief that we must develop land in the same pattern as we have over the past half-century. It’s time for a change in how we see space and how we create our place.

First things first. To anyone who believes that this is just good ole ‘merican capitalism and we need to let the forces that be run its course, you are sorely out of touch with how development occurs. In this particular case, Walmart is even suggesting the creation of a Business District [pdf] – which for those that are unfamiliar, come with many incentives/benefits for a company to take advantage of.

Does Peoria need another Walmart? That isn’t my question to answer. Technically, they aren’t adding one, but geographically shifting where one would be located while expanding their product line. Walmart is notoriously known for this.

Would it add to the sales tax revenue and property taxes? Maybe. The increase in purchases at this proposed location is only a shift in spending, and more than likely not creating any new revenues due to the existing consumer base that presently shops in and around this area. You are building new on previously undeveloped land, but you are vacating a previous location so it’s hardly growth. It more or less amounts to growth without growth.

Does a massive big-box retailer detract from surrounding property values, and would it hurt existing businesses? More than likely it would. Granted, War Memorial Drive is nothing of a quaint, walkable environment. There is a large swath of park that breaks up a stroad. Walmart and its usual cling-on businesses that seem to appear with new development may add something new, but it’s usually not without the loss of something that previously existed.

War Memorial
War Memorial Drive

Does this area need the greenspace? Peoria is funny when it comes to greenspace. We want it everywhere, can’t afford to maintain it, and sprawl outward into “Growth Cells” and fail to preserve the abundance of greenspace that surrounds the city.

I grew up playing sports and love parks. I even worked park maintenance during my summer breaks in college. As I’ve grown up and matured, I have realized that it takes a lot to keep parks looking and functioning good. Most parks will sit empty for all but for 2 hours a day. Hardly the best use of space especially in a Midwestern climate. By adding more “green” that we have to maintain we are effectively charging ourselves more “green” in the long run. We need to realize that the best kept park is the land we have yet to develop on the outside of town.

So here is my proposal.

Let’s make the most use of this space and reimagine how it will look for the next 30-40 years not just the next 5.

Peoria Stadium
RAD Proposal: 14.5 Acres of frontage development on War Memorial.
Map & measurements via Peoria County GIS

Sell off a portion of the 76 acre site for mixed-use development. Let’s not settle for just one super-sized big box or a frumpy strip mall. As the city has sprawled outward, this is no longer on the outskirts of town and needs to be treated in a different manner.

Over 10% of the park is dedicated to public parking. That’s not even counting streets and the parking for park staff. The current arrangement has many unused. It’s inactive, active space…

Require Walmart to conform to your design standards of a city that is progressing, not the other way around. They’re in it for profit not for community development. If you don’t steer the ship, someone else will. Let us have a look at what the current Walmart on University looks like. Pretty standard, and understandable why neighbors don’t want a bigger replica of this.

Walmart
Current location on University

Compare that to the Walmart designs in urban or nearby areas. There exists a smaller scale neighborhood market model, and there are places that have recommended an alternate style of development.

*Note: These aren’t necessarily to show what should be there, but to highlight that it can be done differently.

Why mixed-use? For more explanation on why a mixed-use site is better performing than a standard single-use zoning site, Joseph Minicozzi, principal of the firm Urban3, puts it best when he asks,

Are cities across the country acting negligently in ignoring the property tax implications of different development types?

He goes on to compare the typical Walmart build to a mixed-use development and finds per taxable acre that a mixed-use style wins out.

Think about how much wasted space comes with a standard or Supercenter Walmart. That is space that could be better utilized and perform better for the municipalities tax base. For the full analysis read more here.

So, maybe instead of the super-sized version of a space killer in this spot we opt for a neighborhood market, possibly keep the current University location, and envision what else could be here? There is an ALDI just across New York Street that was recently vacated (to build near the Walmart on University) that will need to be redeveloped.

Aldi

Lakeland Green
Illustration of human scale, mixed-use development. Source: http://www.tsix.ca

Incorporating a scaled-down version of its current desire is undoubtedly not in the cards for Walmart. They want this area because of the land and to go BIG.

But wait just a minute.

Think about the other opportunities around Peoria for Walmart neighborhood markets… That opens up a world of possibilities to attract new business and put to use empty land or buildings. If I was looking to have an empire where the sun never sets on my business, I would want to be on all corners of the map too.

Here are some locations that could be converted for Walmart use and even be less controversial. Yes, I am aware they aren’t the leaders of adaptive reuse, but just a thought.

Cub
The old Cub Foods location on Knoxville Ave. in the Midtown Plaza
Adams Supermarket
Site of old Adams Supermarket on SW Adams St.

I doubt this will ever make some analyst’s desk at Walmart, and I’m sure they have a formula based on how their Supercenter outperforms their smaller locations. That is why the North Allen Road Supercenter, proposed location, and East Peoria riverfront location are strategically set about 5 miles apart from each other.

Right now they aren’t anyone’s savior, but when they scale things down to a neighborhood size and locate in areas that have been empty or are known as “food deserts” – they all of the sudden could become pioneers of business again.

The Midtown Plaza site could be ideal since it was previously used as a supermarket. It could easily be molded to fit the bill. The site of the old Adams Supermarket would bring the first new commercial development in that area in decades. There have been recent updates to public housing there, yet no products, services, or jobs to meet residents needs. This location is just off of I-474 and not only provides easy access for trucks, but it can also target the population of neighboring Bartonville (people from Bentonville should like the name).

If nothing else, we should thank Walmart for starting the discussion and opening up the forum for grown-up conversation to be had. In the end, selling a portion of the real estate for new development (not necessarily a Walmart) isn’t too far-fetched and the impact to the park and neighborhood would/could be minimal.

  • It is compatible with the existing uses along War Memorial Drive,
  • Benefits District 150 in the short-term with some immediate cash flow relief,
  • Allows the Park District to manage less property and reconfigure the space to maximize its potential. It will also draw funds to aid with the needed rehabilitation,
  • Encourages smart development that is appropriately scaled to the neighborhood and will actually help property values,
  • And for all of the governing bodies it increases the tax base and provides long-term value.

This issue won’t go away. Until we realize that our method of development over the past 60-70 years hasn’t panned out quite like how we imagined it would, we will continue to have these heated us against them debates.

Coinciding with all of this, my next recommendation is for Peoria to adapt a transect-based planning model as shown below. This is meant to taper a city off after a certain point and aids in deciding which form of development is appropriate in each transect.

SprawlTransectDesigning the future of our city matters. To ignite redevelopment downtown, for infill to occur in areas that have been abandoned, and to preserve the land, the greatest asset of the area – we need to look at our recent developments more critically and plan better.

This is the part that will be hardest for everyone to admit, but we must realize that in order to encourage development that benefits all and not just some, and to create a more sustainable city – we have to first figure out where it ends.

I’ll end with a great quote that came across my twitter feed this morning:

Problems cannot be solved with the same level of thinking that created them.

-Einstein

*Credits:

http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2011/11/lessons-from-walmarts-foray-into.html

Walmart is no savior: More small businesses = healthier people

http://www.placemakers.com/2013/03/25/healthy-or-unhealthy-by-design/

http://www.smartcodecentral.org/

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7 thoughts on “Middle Ground

  1. 16incheswestofpeoria says:

    Thoughtful essay. I agree that the only way to guide development is to guide development. Unfortunately, that’s not a core competency of the city. Walmart is always planning, whether it’s looking for handouts or unguarded green sites. It’s made a lot of money for the Walton family that way. Peoria, on the other hand, is usually reacting, which has also made a lot of money for the Walton family. That means the question is no longer will it play in Peoria; it’s when will Peoria get played again. My guess? Soon.

    1. Erik says:

      Agreed, which is not why I chose not to froth over what the corporation is doing but why we should thank them for allowing us the opportunity to get our ducks in a row.

      When that time you speak of comes, I’ll have another post entitled “Thank you sir, may I have another…” dedicated to you.

  2. Erik says:

    Thanks Lizz! We can get our shorts in a twist or maybe come up with a productive solution. You know, you’ve seen what happens when people come together!

  3. philaplanningjournal says:

    This is an interesting situation. I agree with your recommendation to think about planning the use of the space in the long-run (physically and financially). Perhaps if the site does get sold for private development, the City can stipulate that public recreation and open space is integrated into the development. That way the City gets tax-ratable development and newer recreational space. I’ve seen communities use official maps (showing trails, public gathering space, etc.) as a way to ensure green space is integrated into future development.

    1. Erik says:

      Thanks for reading! That would be nice to see. I think that it is just such an extreme proposition of large parkland swapped for soul crushing megabox. I can see how this all or nothing approach gets many tempers heated. Doesn’t have to be an either or proposition but a blend like you mention.

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