Technology center for Trades District gets OK from Bloomington plan commission

Getting unanimous approval from Bloomington’s plan commission on Monday night was the site plan for a three-story, 21,000-square-foot office building in the Trades District.

The joint project of the city’s economic and sustainable development (ESD) department and the Bloomington Economic Development Corporation is the planned home of a technology center that won a $3.5 million grant from the federal Economic Development Administration.

The total cost of the project is around $5.5 million. Bloomington’s redevelopment commission is using tax increment finance (TIF) revenue to make the required local match of the federal dollars.

The site is now a vacant lot,  north of the old Showers Company building that houses the Monroe County government center, as well as city hall. It is just south of The Mill, which is a co-working space that has been developed as an adaptive reuse of another old Showers building.

Representing ESD at Monday’s plan commission meeting was assistant director Jane Kupersmith, who described the center as a “graduation space” for The Mill. BEDC president Jen Pearl has previously described the role of her organization as establishing the nonprofit that will operate the building to provide services to the companies that are its tenants.

Kupersmith said on Monday, “We don’t have tenants, yet. But we’re building it for.” The potential tenants are beyond the initial start-up stage and are “next in line in the growth cycle,” Kupersmith said. Towards the end of March there will be some outreach events for potential tenants, Kupersmith said.

Jackie Scanlan, development services manager for the planning department, presented the technology center project. Some highlights included the fact that the third floor is smaller, and includes an outdoor terrace area. No on-site parking is required or proposed in connection with the technology center.

Why isn’t any parking needed? In April 2021, the redevelopment commission opened a new parking garage on the Rogers Street side of the Trades District, just west of the technology center site.

The only reason the technology center site plan was on Monday’s plan commission agenda is the project’s amount of square footage (20,000 square feet). That exceeds the 15,000-square-foot threshold that triggers mandatory review by the plan commission.

Plan commissioners wanted to know where the entrances for the building will be. There’s one entrance off Madison Street in a notched recess on the northeast side of the building. A second pedestrian entrance is planned on the west side of the building.

Two issues that have to be resolved as conditions of the site plan approval involve the amount of impervious surface on the site and the proposed metal cladding for the third story.

At least 25 percent of the site has to be green space under the zoning code, but the current proposal shows 19.8 percent green space, Scanlan told plan commissioners. Either the amount of impervious hardscape has to be reduced, or the lot line needs to be extended south to incorporate more green space.

The proposed metal cladding for the third story is a mix of Corten (rusted metal) and charcoal metal. But metal is currently not an allowable facade material in the Showers Technology (ST) character area.

One possibility is for the project to obtain a variance from the board of zoning appeals (BZA) to allow the metal cladding. Another possibility is that the unified development ordinance (UDO) will be changed to allow metal facade material in the ST character area. That’s one of a raft of changes to the UDO that the plan commission voted on Monday to recommend to the city council for approval.

About the technology center, plan commissioner Karin St. John said, “I think this is really exciting.” She added, “I think it’s a great opportunity for Bloomington and I’m looking forward to supporting it.” The vote on the technology center site plan was not controversial among the six plan commissioners in attendance on Monday and it passed on a 6–0 vote.

The technology center is expected to break ground this year.

Monday’s plan commission decisions on the technology site plan and the recommendations on the UDO—as well as all the other business handled by the plan commission on Monday night—could be subject to legal scrutiny.

That’s because only four of nine voting plan commissioners attended in person, which is an apparent violation of the Open Door Law (ODL). Indiana’s public access counselor has interpreted the ODL as requiring at least 50 percent of sitting plan commissioners to attend in person. Two plan commissioners attended via the Zoom video-conferencing platform and three were absent.

[Updated with a response from city attorney Mike Rouker is this article, which was published Monday night: Did Bloomington plan commission meeting follow state law on electronic meetings?  The city interprets the law to mean that 50 percent of meeting attendees have to be there in person, not 50 percent of the serving members of the governing body. The B Square is following up with other legal experts.]