For at least forty years, the neighborhoods bordering the university have been home to dozens of iterations of ugly boxlike student housing. These buildings appear to have been built with little or no design oversight and were inserted into what had been residential neighborhoods. Any newcomer to the city today would agree that they are a visual blot on the surrounding residential zones.
You can actually date them by their ugliness, after a fashion: the first-generation rectangular plain boxes with balconies were built earlier in the 1960s, while the faux mansards came somewhat later. But all of them appear to have been built by the early 1970s, at which point the neighborhoods of Elm Heights, Cottage Grove, and East Second, Dunn and Grant (just south of Third) had all been marred beyond recognition.
What were our planners thinking? Was there even city planning back in the 1960s and ’70s? Did anyone protest at the time as their neighborhoods were being uglified? It’s not as though high-rise apartments benefit the overall tone of a residential district, and parking has always been an issue. It’s pointless to argue with the fact that they exist, but when my daydreams turn to what I would do if I were a billionaire, I know at once what I would do. I would buy up every box apartment in order to demolish them and construct new-tech but retro-look foursquares, bungalows and cottages that would restore those neighborhoods to their original look.
Apparently our community has learned nothing from the repeated mistakes of the past, because our city planners have repeatedly approved poorly conceived high-rises throughout our downtown core.
Although Bloomington does have design guidelines, the city planners have granted so many exceptions in the past decade that it basically amounts to spot-zoning….which was what the design guidelines were originally put in place to avoid.
Don’t get me wrong; I think compact urban form is a good thing in general if it follows New Urbanism principles and involves visually attractive units that have diverse and sustainable populations living inside them. But why did the city fathers in their wisdom believe that any multi-story monolithic structure automatically qualified as New Urbanism? Why did they think it would be constructive and healthy to create a monoculture of young, randy, drunken people concentrated in the city’s core? Good oversight and good planning would have required developers to set aside a proper percentage of each building for families, professionals and/or retirees. Each development also ought to have contained a number of affordable units for the poor.
These towering apartments in the city’s core have created many ripple effects, one of which is the ongoing parking problem. Certain city council members cherished the misguided hope that if apartments were constructed without adequate attached parking, it would encourage students to use bicycles instead. But since the majority of the 2000-plus renters already owned vehicles, and because all of their visiting friends and lovers also drive cars, this was a myopic approach to reality. The shortage of parking led the city to bring back parking meters, which in turn severely impacted downtown businesses. Has anyone else out there heard the rumors of the official parking survey whose findings were so anti-meter that the city suppressed the news?
It’s not just parking that has impacted the business environment downtown. Boutiques and shops that appealed to non-student clienteles went out of business. In their place many new bars have opened up, which is why puddles of barf on the sidewalks are a daily sight. The downtown core’s entire feel is completely different than it was a decade ago.
A planning choice is more than a drawing and a presentation. A decision must not be limited to the single block where the development will be built, but should take into consideration every possible long-term repercussion to the community at large. It should affirmatively answer the question “is this building going to be good for our community for years to come?”
Because the vast majority of the apartment buildings downtown are ugly and detrimental to the quality of life, it’s clear that the current batch of city planners have not done a good job . Now that we will have a new mayor this fall, think carefully about how your vote will determine Bloomington’s future. Will your candidate continue on the current path, or will he replace the planners and make an attempt to correct the damage? Time will tell.