Reliving ‘Urban Renewal: Again, Bloomington Risks Its Sense of Place

By Jan Sorby

The front page headline of the Herald-Telephone in December of 1959 read, “Wants a Six-Story Building: Tear Down the Courthouse Councilman Turner Declares.” The article reported a suggestion on the part of Councilman Robert Turner “that the county tear down ‘this monstrosity of a Courthouse’ and build a six-story modern office in its place.” It described buildings around the Bloomington Square as close to a hundred years old and proposed that a “multi-story parking garage could replace these “wrecks.” 

In the late ‘50s, “Urban Renewal” was the trend across America. In the name of progress, hundreds of years of cultural development embodied in American cities big and small were scraped clear by bulldozers. Their targets were the “blighted” core neighborhoods that contained obsolete or substandard structures which impaired the sound growth of a city. 

Fueled by billions of dollars and the cachet of a hot new national public policy, local governments stepped in to smooth the path to condemning entire neighborhoods and then selling the neighborhoods to private developers at reduced prices. The intent was to stimulate large-scale private rebuilding and offer improved housing opportunities.

Much as in the Opportunity Zones of today, federal funds were used to stimulate commercial redevelopment. Hundreds of thousands of families were displaced when their homes and neighborhoods were razed.

Today’s drive to add multi-family housing forms in core neighborhoods in Bloomington bears an uncanny resemblance to the Urban Renewal vogue of the 1950s. The ostensible goals this go-round are to meet the pressing need for more affordable housing, stop environmental devastation and correct centuries of social injustice. These are noble objectives. And as in the 1950s, the target is Bloomington’s central core and downtown neighborhoods. 

A Sense of Continuity

Like the neighborhoods of the 1950s, Bloomington’s core represents a small fraction of the available housing stock in the city. Despite this, city planners push their agenda forward to add more density to fully established neighborhoods. In the crosshairs are Bloomington’s naturally occurring affordable housing stock to be razed and the land repurposed for high-end rental. 

Because homes in these neighborhoods are cheaper to purchase, this land is by far the most attractive to large out of town developers. Many residents in the area have already received purchase offers in the wake of last year’s struggle over the same issues. And just as in the ’50s, few in the government are hesitating to ask if this should be done. Is this the best plan for Bloomington or is this only the latest fashion in public policy?  

Skimmed over is the essential question of what Bloomington will lose if its historic core falls under the wrecking ball. The intangible qualities of community identity and its connection to the larger continuum of history is at stake. It boils down to whether history matters to the Bloomington community. 

In a world that is in constant flux, these old neighborhoods provide the community with a sense of continuity and context — with other pandemics, the world wars, depressions, civil unrest and struggles of existence. Psychologically and emotionally, this realization creates a healthier community by forcing Bloomingtonians to ask why things are the way they are today and how we can go forward as a community. 

Moving through these old neighborhoods, we see how people from different times lived, worked, worshiped and raised their families, and doing so allows us to recalibrate our identities. With the modern U.S. landscape peppered with characterless bland cornfield developments that lack a sense of personality, it is crucial to preserve Bloomington’s unique identity for future generations. Regardless of how progress is measured, for decades Bloomington planners have protected these intrinsic values. 

Streamlined Development

But the primary goal in Bloomington Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) is to streamline development in these critical areas. Duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes are proposed as “by right” and few design guidelines are offered, leaving an unobstructed path for developers. The only design constraints are that the porch width and depth and the roof pitch must be “similar” to other buildings on the block face. With this inadequate design guidance, an all-glass, three-story, futuristic house or a log cabin replica could be shoehorned into a mid-20th Century fabric if the roof pitch and the front porch are similar. 

Core neighborhoods are linked by scale, materials, building type and key aesthetic considerations, none of which are addressed in the UDO. A structure large enough to contain twelve bedrooms is simply not found in the core neighborhood residential stock. The scale and bulk of such a building would be grotesquely incompatible with most of the residential structures, regardless of the slope of the roof or size of the front porch.

Furthermore, concentrating the highest density on the smallest lots — the apparent strategy of the esoteric formula the city’s planners claim to have used to map residential zones — will necessitate lot aggregation, which in turn accelerates the loss of naturally occurring affordable housing stock. 

City planners have stated that most older neighborhoods have historic protection and therefore will be safe from defacement; the other neighborhoods without protection are basically on their own.

Located close to both downtown and the university, the Bryan Park neighborhood has for decades had Bloomington’s highest percentage of student rentals south of campus. Several years ago, an initiative to create a historic district was prevented by an uproar from the massive number of landlords who refused to give up full control of their properties. 

Buildings in Bryan Park, as in many historic neighborhoods, were created with high-quality materials, construction, and craftsmanship. They are solidly built but are not luxurious. They offer lovely proportions and gracious porches. But it is the setting or “fabric” of the street pattern that creates the backbone of its charm. 

Bryan Park residents, like those in McDoel Gardens, worked at many of the mills located along the railroad and later at the RCA plant, just up the street. Bloomington is not like a wealthy river town but rather was built as a modest furniture manufacturing and limestone mill town that happened to have a university constructed on its farmlands. Bloomington’s history is a tale of two towns, and its history is reflected in its built environment around the downtown and university.  

Built at a high density before the automobile ruled, these neighborhoods housed all sorts of people and businesses, regardless of trade, income level, religion or color. There were factories, retail shops, churches, grocery stores, rooming houses, duplexes, walk-ups, fourplexes, small-footprint apartments and single-family houses (big and small) that knit together to create a density that supported public transportation. Traffic and aged infrastructure are an ever-growing worry, and neighbors are typically cautious about supporting projects that will dump more cars on already-crowded streets, especially for the sake of the next shiny new building. 

Focus on 5% of the City

Bloomington’s approach to upzoning targets one small area of the city, estimated to be about 5% of the city’s area. It is insensitive to ignore the valid concerns of people who live in these areas. Finding solutions to avoid the destruction of historic character, finding ways to mitigate traffic and blunting the impacts of gentrification and displacement against the benefits of building more should be primary areas of focus for city planners. 

To protect this heritage the UDO should adapt a Form-Based Zoning code to maintain the neighborhood fabric.

Bloomington’s historic identity is on a precipice. Will we allow the fabric of our core neighborhoods to be destroyed by a zoning plan that offers no direction for compatible infill? The proposed upzoning is extreme. Density in core neighborhoods is slated to go from three unrelated people per lot to as many as twelve in a fourplex by-right, without so much as a requirement to notify current neighbors. 

Residents and government officials should ask if this is the right plan for Bloomington. Upzoning is a trend today in larger cities with very different demographics. But housing markets are complex and vary hugely from place to place. We should question if there is a better approach to add density that is less harmful to the identity of the city. 

Research does not support the simplistic supply-and-demand assumption that higher density creates lower cost, or that a smoother path for developers results in the type of construction a community wants. As change happens it should be done gradually, thoughtfully, and respectfully through an inclusive process.

Sometimes it’s hard to separate good intentions from unintended consequences. Urban Renewal hollowed out the built environment of many cities which are still struggling to recover 70 years later. It is not easy to recover from failed public policy, even if its authors had noble objectives. What is at risk is Bloomington’s irreplaceable history.

For people, memory defines our individual place in time. People save photos and keepsakes to link themselves to their past. It is the same for a community. Once the physical memory embodied in its historical architecture is gone, so is its collective social memory, its personality, its essence. 

The man-made physical environment gives us a sense of history, a sense of belonging, a sense of identity, a sense of stability, a sense of place, a sense of our values. When we raze buildings that provide that sense — we have decided that those values are not worth saving.

Preservationist Donovan Rypkema

Be thankful Bloomington had the good sense to preserve the Monroe County Courthouse. It’s hard to imagine what the downtown square would look and feel like if Councilman Robert Turner’s vision had been embraced. Bloomington must find ways to achieve its goals without destroying its sense of place.

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