Developing a More Sustainable Peoria

The adjectives “sustainable” and “green” continue to be the darlings of our contemporary world. Just about everyone in nearly every field of endeavor is racing to add these words to their everyday vocabulary…and to their product descriptions…and their marketing plans…and their mission statements. The business of land development is certainly no different. Whether it’s a new residential subdivision, a small retail center or an upgrade to municipal infrastructure, both public and private developers are seeking out every way possible to make these gentle on the environment.

In Peoria, three recent developments, in three very different parts of the city, offer three very unique responses to this need to be greener. One of these is about to come “online.” A second development has been planned from a global perspective, but is still several years away from realizing its full potential. And the third is about to enter the detailed design and construction phase.

Glen Oak Community Learning Center
In the very heart of Peoria’s historic East Bluff neighborhood, a four-city-block area is being profoundly transformed via a unique set of public and private partnerships. The crown jewel in this development is an all-new 126,000-square-foot Glen Oak School and Community Center that will serve pupils from birth through eighth grade. From both urban and architectural design perspectives, the school itself breaks new ground by providing an all-weather pedestrian street that links a two-story academic wing with a one-story community facility wing. This pedestrian way is on axis with Frye Street, an important east-west connector that extends all the way to Prospect Avenue on the eastern edge of the East Bluff, and to Knoxville Avenue on its western edge.

Glen Oak’s all-weather pedestrian street is intended to serve as the nucleus for the entire four-block development. Both the school’s expansive media center (to the north) and its cafeteria and multi-purpose community space (to the south) open directly to this interior venue. In the academic wing to the north, integrated learning laboratories can be found on both levels, which can be used collaboratively by student groups across several classes and grade levels. In the community wing to the south, residents of the surrounding neighborhood can take a night class, utilize the full-service gymnasium, or enjoy an exercise routine while looking out over the public park.

The Glen Oak development does not stop with simply a new school building. It includes a new public park (above the 110 deep wells that were dug for the geothermal heating and cooling system serving the school), designed in cooperation with the Peoria Park District, and a coordinated ensemble of new streets and intersections around the perimeter of the four-block site, designed and built by the City of Peoria. Beyond these public stakeholders, the private businesses in the adjacent Wisconsin Avenue Business District have begun organizing themselves in an effort to provide a powerful and dynamic private-sector complement to all of these public sector inputs.

The Glen Oak Birth—8th Grade Community Learning Center development represents all the best and most profound elements of sustainability. The new school itself includes a geothermal heating and cooling system, generous amounts of natural daylighting, extensive use of recycled materials and systems, numerous bioswales and other natural catchments, and other up-to-the-minute green features. More importantly, it returns a significant portion of formerly “developed” urban area to a “natural” state (in the form of a public park, school sports fields and several outdoor nature explorer classrooms). And, perhaps most critically, it rejuvenates and “recycles” an existing, older neighborhood taking full advantage of all of the embodied energy and infrastructure that such a neighborhood has to offer.

Sheridan Triangle Business District
Less than a mile west of the Glen Oak development, another significant portion of Peoria’s urban fabric is being reborn. The Sheridan Triangle Business District, long an important commercial hub for Peoria’s Center Bluff Neighborhood, had struggled in our modern age to effectively compete with big box retailers and other centers of commerce springing up on the city’s outskirts. Tenants changed hands frequently, and at any given time, several of the buildings in this business district could be found standing empty or abandoned.

Shortly after the turn to the current century, the City of Peoria embarked on a long-range effort to breathe new life into the Sheridan Triangle area. Surrounding residential neighborhoods, many of which were still vibrant and thriving, were canvassed for their thoughts and ideas about what to do. Some matching grant dollars were made available to remaining businesses in the district, for facade and other exterior improvements. An exciting master development plan was created to guide the rebirth of the entire area. This master plan incorporated all the principles and concepts of new urbanism that were just coming online elsewhere in the City of Peoria through the adoption of the Heart of Peoria Plan and the Land Development Code. A revitalized Sheridan Triangle Business District and environs would be pedestrian-friendly, landscape-intensive, and vibrantly mixed in its uses and functions (and would include new and narrower streets, wider sidewalks, ornamental street lighting and furniture, among other amenities).

One important piece of urban infrastructure that would assist in this revitalization was already firmly in place; namely a two-lane-only Sheridan Road arterial that traversed the entire Center Bluff Neighborhood, including the Sheridan Triangle Business District. The City of Peoria, with the support of many residents in the surrounding area, had consistently resisted any move towards the widening of this arterial. By keeping Sheridan Road at this two-lane maximum, with generous grassy rights-of-way and pedestrian sidewalks to either side, it (as well as the surrounding residential neighborhoods) had retained their strong people-oriented scale.

At present, several existing retailers in the Sheridan Triangle Business District have completed their rejuvenation efforts. And several new businesses have opened as well. The Lippmann’s Furniture building, the former retail anchor for the district, is being converted into a multi-faceted Community Center. It will include a café, a florist and several studio work environments.

Orange Prairie Roadway
Both the Glen Oak and Sheridan Triangle developments begin to address the critical need to bring back to life the older, established parts of the Peoria community. They attempt to change the conventional current of most new development spreading out farther and farther away from the City’s core (encroaching more and more upon virgin farmland and natural area here in central Illinois). At the same time, that conventional current need not be totally abandoned, so as to provide Peorians with choices and options as to where to live, work, shop and recreate.

The Orange Prairie Roadway extension project, on Peoria’s far north side, attempts to offer that suburban or exurban option while considering some important evolutions in design and detailing that might make it greener and gentler on the environment. The project will bring to completion a new principal arterial roadway, from US Route 150 to Alta Road, north of the newly developed Greater Grand Prairie area, in Peoria’s Growth Cell 3.

This Greater Grand Prairie area has been the hub of much of the new development in Peoria in recent years, including the Shoppes at Grand Prairie, a major campus of hotels and eateries, and some residential complexes. Many additional developments in this area are currently on the drawing boards, which makes the need to extend the existing Orange Prairie Road that much more critical.

In the same collaborative spirit as that seen at Glen Oak and Sheridan Triangle, the Orange Prairie Roadway project is a joint effort between the City of Peoria and the State of Illinois. When complete and operational, it will encourage and support further development in the Greater Grand Prairie area, but in a carefully and thoughtfully planned manner. And, it may serve as a model for how such suburban and exurban developments can be greener and more sustainable. Using the State of Illinois’s new I-LAST (Livable and Sustainable Transportation) rating system, Orange Prairie designers are currently considering such items as protected bicycle and pedestrian pathways along the route, sustainable stormwater detention and wetland creation, introduction of street trees and landscape buffer zones, and energy-efficient street lighting. In addition, efforts will be made to maximize the use of local and recycled materials while minimizing the earthmoving operations in the entire project area.

Conclusion
The Glen Oak Community Learning Center, Sheridan Triangle Business District and Orange Prairie Roadway represent three very different types of present-day development within the City of Peoria. At Glen Oak in the Third Council District, the public sector (Peoria Public Schools District 150, the Public Building Commission of Peoria and City Hall) is making a significant facility investment in an existing neighborhood in an effort to rebuild the community there. At the Sheridan Triangle Business District, the public and private sectors are working hand-in-hand to rejuvenate a largely privately owned retail hub. And, at Orange Prairie, the roadway will be constructed in a coherent, orderly and sustainable manner.

Despite their diversity, all three developments have several common threads. Each is attempting to provide the citizens of Peoria with a comprehensive variety of choices and options for venues to live, work and play; while minimizing any negative impacts on our land, air and water. And, each of these significant developments is, ultimately, trying to create a more sustainable Peoria. iBi

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