Multimodal station and plan spur town’s revival
The multimodal Uptown Station in Normal, Illinois--the first federal TIGER project to break ground in 2010--spurred impressive growth in transit ridership and mixed-use private downtown investment, according to a recent study.
The transportation center brings together Amtrak, intercity bus lines, local transit, cars, shuttles, taxis, bicycles, and pedestrians. It is the centerpiece of a LEED-ND certified downtown revitalization plan by Farr Associates of Chicago.
Based on the new urban plan, an oddly shaped intersection was converted into a major public space called Uptown Circle--fronted by a new children’s museum, town hall, the transportation center, and mixed-use buildings with shops and restaurants.
“Private spinoff development anchored by the transit center, totaling $220 million, is already revitalizing Uptown Normal,” notes Washington DC-based Good Jobs First, which wrote the report funded by the Ford Foundation. “It’s a best-practice model of long-range neighborhood planning focused around transit investments.”
The regional transit system, called Connect Transit, operates 11 bus routes. Uptown Station serves as the central hub connecting these routes throughout the town. Ridership has increased by over 40 percent in the last three years--topping more than 2 million rides a year.
The $49 million Uptown Station was built with a $22 million TIGER grant matched by state, local, and Federal Transit Administration dollars.
The construction created 140,000 hours of work for workers in at least 13 different trade crafts, who were then suffering from high unemployment at the depth of the recession, according to authors Thomas Cafcas and Greg LeRoy. Road-building projects tend to only involve three crafts, Cafcas and LeRoy explain.
Amtrak boardings in Normal have risen higher than much larger cities like Minneapolis-St. Paul, Indianapolis, and Kansas City, and ridership should grow as track improvements are implemented between Chicago and St. Louis. “Even before high-speed rail service arrives, the station has become Amtrak’s second-busiest in Illinois and fourth-busiest in the entire Midwest,” the report says.
Not so long ago, the mid-sized municipality (population about 54,000) faced many problems. The growth of suburban strip malls drew retail spending away from downtown. Business turnover was high. Establishments tended to cater to the students at nearby Illinois State University. Buildings were poorly maintained, and the area generally lacked significant reinvestment. The downtown was not very appealing to bicyclists and pedestrians. “In looking to develop a brighter future, the town hearkened back to its past,” the authors note.
The town hired Farr in 1999, and council officially adopted the plan in 2001. It emphasizes sustainability, pedestrian- and transit-oriented design, increased housing density, mixed uses, and more diverse hotel and retail options. The central roundabout was designed to tie the transportation and placemaking elements together.
The city began implementation by adopting the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) standards and rebranding the area Uptown Normal. A tax-increment financing (TIF) district was created to fund public amenities. The design of the multimodal transit center was refined in the years leading up to the recession.
When TIGER was put in place to spur economic recovery in 2009, Normal’s plan was “shovel-ready” and attractive to federal officials. Uptown Station’s construction was a spark that ignited the downtown revitalization in the last five years.
Source: Good Jobs First report
Simultaneously, Normal’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan set non-motorized transportation priorities, which tied in with the transit hub. “Over 30 miles of bicycle trails connect to Uptown Station. Sheltered bicycle parking is available inside next to the Connect Transit stop,” the authors note.
Good Jobs First cautiously endorses Normal’s TIF district, which diverts “some property tax revenues through 2026 to pay for property assembly costs, public parking attached to and nearby the Uptown Station, public infrastructure such as roads, plazas, and utilities, the Children’s Discovery Museum, professional planning services, a small amount of grants and loans, and other public improvements.
“While Good Jobs First frequently expresses skepticism towards TIF, the use of limited TIF spending in Uptown as a part of a long-term strategic redevelopment plan stands apart. Tying TIF spending to public infrastructure investments and transit-oriented development aligns with many best practices.”
The report recommends that the municipality take “the foot off the pedal” and ramp down the TIF as Uptown Normal’s resurgence is firmly established-- so that the private sector does not become overly reliant on public sector subsidies. “Limiting the use of TIF after revitalization has taken place is a Good Jobs First best practice,” the authors note.
The recent investment notwithstanding, substantial underutilized sites remain in the center of Normal and redevelopment could go on for many years to come.
The progress so far has been remarkable, according to Good Jobs First. “Uptown Normal should serve as a model on how small- and medium-sized cities can rekindle excitement around Main Street America,” notes Cafcas.