SynergiCity

Exploring the Potential of the Warehouse District
by Ray Lees
PSA Dewberry

Reservoirs for filtered rainwater, a “gateway” traffic circle, the revitalization of historic riverfront structures…several graduate students from the University of Illinois School of Architecture recently showcased an intriguing mix of ideas for creating a vibrant warehouse district in downtown Peoria. Developed after a semester of studying the history of the riverfront area under the tutelage of professors Paul Armstrong and Paul Kapp, the students’ recommendations earned an enthusiastic response from Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis, the city’s planning commission, and several local developers and business owners.

Progress and Potential

Armstrong and Kapp selected Peoria’s Warehouse District as the focal point for the students’ research after noting the considerable progress made to date in redevelopment efforts, as well as the promise of revitalizing the district offered by the good building stock of several historic warehouse and industrial structures. The students conducted a design charrette and made their final presentations in the offices of the architectural and engineering firm of PSA-Dewberry at 401 Water Street, one of the buildings that served as inspiration for adaptive reuse opportunities. PSA-Dewberry moved into the restored turn-of-the-century building in 2000 after designing its conversion into a successful mixed-use property for developer Kert Huber.

“The students’ ideas showed a lot of vision and thoughtfulness,” said Pat Sullivan, a long-time resident, developer and business owner in the Warehouse District. “They were fresh ideas, and they addressed a lot of issues. I think it’s great to get the students’ ideas, without the limits of politics or other constraints. They understand New Urbanism, and that the Warehouse District has the potential to be a place where you can live and work.”

SynergiCity: Exploring Urban Redevelopment
The student project, called SynergiCity, was the university’s second initiative to explore the redevelopment of Peoria’s Warehouse District. Thirteen students took part in this year’s effort, which involved extensive research, analysis of zoning and other municipal codes, demographic analyses, site tours, the design charrette, and the final presentation of ideas and recommendations in early May.

According to Paul Armstrong, the first group of students focused on the transformation of the nine-block Warehouse District into a “city within a city,” with a dynamic, pedestrian-oriented core. “They addressed the issue of critical mass,” he notes, “and how the area could become more densely populated with multiple uses, including civic and residential development.” The students presented their ideas last year to a group of local representatives, including elected officials, city staff, developers and planning commission members. Their concepts were so well received that the professors not only determined to lead the project again this year, but also decided to base a book on the initiative.

This year’s group of students built upon those ideas while also addressing several challenging issues, including flooding and transportation. “Protecting the watershed was a primary concern,” Armstrong says. “Currently, rainwater runs off the city streets and drains into the Illinois River.  There is also a concern with the river flooding. The students focused on trying to find a way to control that, and showing the city how it could become a steward of the river.”

Proposed solutions included a series of rain gardens and strips of vegetation that would filter stormwater into several reservoirs near the river. “Infrastructure is an important aspect of future development and the students viewed it as an opportunity to begin to build a ‘living machine,’” Armstrong says. “The riverfront would essentially become a recreational wetland.”

Creative Capital
This year’s SynergiCity project not only incorporated forward-thinking design concepts, but also took into account the need to attract new businesses and residents to the area. “We considered the ‘creative capital,'” says Armstrong, “including human, social and economic resources. How can we entice new entrepreneurial enterprises to come into the area? How can we attract residents, and perhaps cultural or civic entities?”

“The second time around, the students introduced the idea of bringing in an institutional presence, such as a higher education campus, to serve as a catalyst,” says Paul Kapp. “They really did their homework, looking at history, demographics and previous planning initiatives such as the Heart of Peoria Plan. What excited me was the idea of redeveloping and repurposing the warehouses.”

The group also considered the overall identity of the Warehouse District, including the importance of creating a sense of arrival. A traffic circle, or “roundabout,” located near the foot of the Bob Michel Bridge was among the ideas that caught the attention of planning commission members and business owners during the students’ presentation. The circle would create a distinct, gateway effect as visitors entered the riverfront area from East Peoria.

Pat Sullivan, who has lived in the district for nearly a dozen years and remembers when the area was thriving with busy warehouses that supplied building materials to contractors and other industries, appreciates the students’ interest in the historic area. “These are great old buildings with good bones,” he says. “The Warehouse District has an interesting history. I can still picture how it used to work—I remember picking up materials there. It would be great to see it busy again.”

Sullivan credits the students with generating several interesting approaches, and also points to tax credits and an overhaul of Washington Street as critical steps in spurring development in the area. “As development picks up, more and more people will want to move in here,” he says. “The students clearly understand the importance of creating a place that combines business, residential use and recreation.” He and other local business leaders, as well as members of the planning commission, are quick to note that all of the analysis and design concepts presented by the university students over the past two years have come at no cost to the Peoria community, yet the process has provided a wealth of inspiration and ideas.

For Armstrong and Kapp, the next step is to complete the book, with Peoria’s Warehouse District a prime example of the potential for revitalization and redevelopment within the Rust Belt and throughout the U.S. “We’re clearly starting to see a trend,” says Kapp. “Cities like Portland, Milwaukee and Chattanooga are all exploring redevelopment, while also focusing on environmental stewardship. The focus of the book addresses the priorities: economic revitalization with a goal of highest and best use, and the need to increase the tax base and accelerate economic value. Hopefully the students’ efforts will serve as a case study not only for what could happen in Peoria, but in other cities as well.” iBi

Ray Lees is a principal in the Peoria office of PSA-Dewberry and chairman of the Peoria Planning Commission.

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