By an 8-to-1 tally, Bloomington’s city council voted Wednesday night to vacate an east-west alley that cuts across the old Johnson’s Creamery property off 7th Street and The B-Line Trail.
Taken at face value, giving up that right-of-way clears the way for Peerless Development to construct a 51-unit apartment building, which has site plan approval from the city’s plan commission. The plan commission’s approval of the building’s site plan was contingent on the vacation of the alley.
The proposed apartment building would sit partly in the middle of the alley that was vacated on Monday night.
But the city council’s approval was part of a kind of swap that Peerless is proposing: The vacation of the existing east-west alley would be made in exchange for the dedication of a new alley, just to the south of the existing one.
The dedication of the new right-of-way would have to be accepted by the board of public works. That’s queued up for the board’s meeting next week, on Nov. 22.
The two-step swap—an alley vacation by the city council, followed by acceptance of a new alley dedication by the board of public works—might not be completed. That’s because the decision by the board of public works will be made in the context of a recommendation from city engineer Andrew Cibor against accepting the dedication of the new alley.
The timeframe for the mayor to sign off on the alley vacation means that the Bloomington city council’s action on Monday won’t have mayoral approval by the time the board of public works meets.
To the extent that the council’s intent was to make their approval of an alley vacation contingent on the dedication of a new alley, Bloomington mayor John Hamilton could facilitate that intent by vetoing the council’s alley vacation—if the board of public works were to deny the dedication of the new right-of-way.
But the intent of making the alley vacation contingent on a swap was not universal across the council. Councilmembers Matt Flaherty and Isabel Piedmont-Smith said on Monday that their support of the alley vacation was not contingent on the acceptance of a new alley dedication by the board of public works.
Dissenting on Monday’s vote was Dave Rollo. Since May of this year, when Peerless made its initial request for an alley vacation, Rollo has been against the idea—saying that whatever public benefit that additional market-rate housing would bring is not adequate to compensate for the loss of public right-of-way.
The “potential for increased benefit to the city” is part of the criteria for vacating public rights-of-way, which are ensconced in a resolution, approved by the city council in 1987. [Res 87-02]
The Hamilton administration had urged the council to make the alley vacation contingent on a $250,000 donation to the city, so that a piece of public art could be commissioned, which would commemorate the old Johnson’s Creamery smokestack. The city had ordered Peerless to demolish the smokestack down to 60 feet, because it was determined to be a safety hazard. That partial demolition is now complete.
The council did not show much appetite for pursuing the requirement of a $250,000 donation towards public art.
On Monday, a vestige of the interest in seeing the smokestack commemorated came in the form of an amendment to the ordinance put forward by Piedmont-Smith and unanimously approved by the council. The amendment sets out the expectation of the council that Peerless will provide up to $10,000 to install a suitable historical marker. Here’s what the amendment said:
This vacation is made with the understanding that the Petitioner shall either install or provide funding (up to $10,000) and necessary access for the city to install an appropriate, durable, historical marker on the site to commemorate the historic Johnson’s Creamery and related smokestack.
City engineer Andrew Cibor gave two basic reasons why his recommendation to the board of public works would be against accepting the dedication of the new ally.
The first reason was the significant underground encroachment on the new alley of a planned stormwater detention facility, which Peerless would be installing in order to satisfy the sustainability incentives in the city’s unified development ordinance (UDO).
The second reason was the lack of any connections that the alley would provide to other parcels. The city would also be responsible for maintaining the new public right-of-way.
Cibor put it like this: “There is just limited public benefit, at least from a public works, engineering type of perspective of that additional right-of-way.”
What appeared to be persuasive to the majority of councilmembers was the idea that underground culverts are common enough that they would be willing to live with the stormwater detention facility under the new alley.
They also appeared to be persuaded that the same arguments that city engineer Andrew Cibor made for his recommendation against acceptance of the new alley, could reasonably apply as arguments against keeping the existing alley.
The existing alley, just to the north of the proposed new alley, also doesn’t connect to other parcels, or The B-Line, because the smokestack encroaches on the existing alley and blocks connections to the east.
In the schematic projected on screen in city council chambers, the new alley was colored blue and the existing alley was colored red.
Flaherty described his reasoning like this: “Applying the exact reasoning shared by the administration as to why they would not recommend dedication of the proposed blue alley, if we apply that reasoning, then in fact, we should be voting to vacate the red alley tonight. And that’s what I intend to do.”