Bloomington’s Lower Cascades Park, which is located north SR 45/46 along a part of Old State Road 37, could be designated as a historic district.
At its Thursday meeting, the city’s historic preservation commission (HPC) got its initial briefing from program manager Gloria Colom Braña on a possible designation for Lower Cascades.
Colom Braña’s report supports a recommendation by the commission to designate the park as a historic district. A vote by the HPC could be taken at its next regular meeting, which is set for Dec. 14.
But on Thursday night, the only action taken by the HPC was to set a public hearing for Dec. 14—on a recommendation that Lower Cascades Park be declared a historic district.
The sentiment among HPC members was uniformly in support of historic designation for the park. Matthew Seddon put it like this: “We don’t need to talk about this anymore. We’re good to go. I think this one is a no-brainer.”
Seddon turned to his colleague Chris Sturbaum, who got thanks from Colom Braña for doing a lot of the work on the Lower Cascades project. Seddon said, “I think, Chris, you did an outstanding job. I think the argument is clear. Simple.”
The historic designation would be based in part on the park’s role in the outdoor leisure and travel movement in the early 20th century. Old State Road 37 was part of the Dixie Highway, which was a series of road connections between Chicago and Florida that was promoted as a leisure travel option in the 1920s.
The designation would also be based on the architectural features of the park, like benches, tables, wishing wells, and shelters—built from local limestone as part of a WPA program in the 1930s.
Many residents see a historic designation for the park as giving some measure of protection against a possible closing of the road running north-south through the park—which has been pushed by Bloomington mayor John Hamilton.
But it’s not clear that a historic designation could necessarily prevent a closure of the road to automobile traffic. Alterations to physical elements of a historic district can be permissible, if a certificate of appropriateness is granted by the HPC.
The final decision on any historic district is subject to approval by the city council. Such a designation is enacted through an ordinance, which ordinarily requires action at two separate council meetings.
This year’s final meeting of the city council is scheduled for Dec. 13, the day before the HPC might be voting on its recommendation. That means the park will almost certainly not see a historic designation before the end of the year.
A historic designation for the park next year, in 2024, would coincide with the park’s centennial. It was officially recognized as a city park in 1924.
The work to prepare the proposal for local historic designation of the park relied in part on a 2021 application from the Bloomington parks department to nominate the park’s placement on the National Register of Historic Places. According to Colom Braña, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a backlog for such applications.
The road that runs through the park is a segment of Old State Road 37. It has been the subject of controversy because of a proposal to close the road to automobile traffic and allow only non-motorized traffic there.
A proposed project to close one lane to motorized traffic and designate the other lane for non-motorized traffic had been given funding through a 2018 bond issuance. The non-motorized connection is indicated in Bloomington’s transportation plan.
After a pilot closure of both lanes to motorized traffic during the COVID-19 pandemic, the parks department opted to re-open the road, but to install speed cushions. The non-motorized connection was never built.
Earlier this year, Bloomington mayor John Hamilton re-floated the idea of just closing the road completely to motorized traffic. That led to a Saturday, July 22 neighborhood gathering in Lower Cascades Park, for residents to air out their concerns, opposing the road closure.
The following Tuesday, the Cascades Road was a topic of conversation at a regular private meeting of the city council officers and administration officials. Based on an emailed report about that meeting, from city council president Sue Sgambelluri to other councilmembers, Hamilton wanted the council to take action to permanently close the road to motorized traffic.
It’s not clear what specific action the council could take to close down the road. But the following day, on July 26, the council received a report on the topic from planning and transportation director Scott Robinson, who outlined some scenarios that the city could consider.
Since July, the city council has not taken up the question. Next year, when the council does consider the likely recommendation from the HDC to designate Lower Cascades Park as a historic district, it will be a council that features five out of nine different members compared to the current group.
By that time, it’s likely that there will be greater clarity about what the exact impact of a historic district might be on a decision to close the road to motorized traffic.
After Thursday’s HPC meeting, Chris Sturbaum responded to a B Square question about the impact of a potential historic district designation on a possible eventual decision to close the road.
Sturbaum noted that the road is a part of the proposed district, and the road is part of the justification for historic designation. A proposed change to the road would be subject to the HPC’s issuance of a certificate of appropriateness, he said. Sturbaum called that section of Old State Road 37 “the most historic road in the most historic park” in Bloomington.