Proposed Development May Alter Uptown Identity, Business Owners Concerned

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On Tuesday, January 16, Council members will consider whether to begin negotiations with Iowa-based Bush Construction for its proposed $29.2M mixed-use building northeast of The Circle.

The 1.28-acre development site includes the public Trail East parking lot and the Town-owned building currently housing The Pod, a local art and accessories shop, at 104 E. Beaufort Street. Owner Natalie Wetzel announced she will close The Pod on February 15, 2018, a decision that was made prior to the proposed development.

Wetzel worries what will happen if the Town chooses a developer whose plans could include demolition of the building. If the building comes down, a popular Uptown mural will go down with it.

Shortly after leasing the building seven years ago, Wetzel invited 50 community members of all ages and artistic abilities to each complete one painting on the brick wall she called “an eye sore.”

The resulting patchwork mural quickly became a favorite backdrop for selfies and prom pictures, wedding and graduation photos. Wetzel said she can’t recall a day that someone didn’t stop to snap a picture in front of the mural.

When she leased the building, Wetzel knew it could be razed as part of the Downtown Revitalization Plan, though she said she didn’t anticipate the Town moving forward with the development so soon.

“It was kind of a shock. Plans obviously can change at any given time, but I had no idea that they had progressed that quickly.” Wetzel first learned about the Town’s proposal while reading news coverage during the first week of January.

Wetzel said she feels it’s her responsibility to protect the artwork residents gave their time and talent to create.

Last week, she and fellow Uptown business owner Andy Streenz (of Bill’s Key and Lock Shop) created a Facebook group called “Save the Uptown Mural and Historic Buildings.” The group has just under 425 members so far.   

Streenz reached out to Wetzel after she shared his January 9 open letter addressing Town of Normal officials on social media.

Each of the three buildings has either kept its original exterior or been remodeled to a period-appropriate look, maintaining the historic character that makes them a defining component of Uptown, Streenz wrote.

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As co-owner of Bill’s Key and Lock Shop at 127 E. Beaufort Street and a historic building enthusiast, Streenz is troubled by the possibility of losing up to three turn-of-the-century structures in the proposed development.

The Town’s request for proposals offered 106 E. Beaufort, owned by Windy City Wieners, and Town-owned 108 E. Beaufort, which houses Slingshot CoWork, as options for inclusion in developers’ proposals.

While no plans have been submitted for the development, Streenz said he “wanted to be sure that the discussion goes no further unless [Town of Normal officials] understood there was opposition to demolishing those buildings.”

“Our downtowns are really special to us these days, because we almost can't build things that way anymore,” he said. “By removing too many of these buildings, you really begin to change what Normal and specifically Uptown Normal is about.”

Streenz said he hopes the developer can contain its plans within the Trail East parking lot, avoiding the Beaufort Street buildings.

“There’s a ton of room to put a building on that corner,” he said. “It’s a large parcel of land. You just have to want to save the buildings that are currently on the site.”

The development needs to provide 18,000 square feet for Farnsworth Group’s consolidated offices and another 5,000 to 6,000 square feet of space for an unnamed tech company. Bush Construction’s proposed five-story building also includes 21 covered parking spaces and 8,500 square feet of retail on the first floor, with three floors of apartments.

Wetzel, too, hopes the Town can find a way to preserve the structures without halting the recent progress of Uptown. While she’s thankful that Normal leadership pushed for major developments to raise the appeal of Uptown--such as the Children’s Discovery Museum and Uptown Station--Wetzel said the mural at 104 E. Beaufort Street “has become something people really hold close and dear to them.”

“Just the thought of wiping it away is very sad.”

Streenz and Wetzel plan to attend the 7:00 p.m. Council meeting Tuesday, January 16, at Uptown Station.