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Possible Bloomington Development Changes Causing Controversy

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    Photo: Tyler Lake

    Matt O’Neill is the owner and chef at the Runcible Spoon.

  • Runcible spoon

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    Photo: Tyler Lake

    The Runcible Spoon is known for its unique dining experience.

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    Photo: Tyler Lake

    The U.S. Census Bureau estimates Bloomington’s population has grown by nearly 15,000 people in the last decade.

Matt O’Neill is the owner and chef at the Runcible Spoon, and he thinks the restaurant is a place unlike any other. O’Neill bought the Spoon in 2001, but the restaurant has been a Bloomington staple since the 1970s. It’s known for its unique dining experience.

“I inherited something really magical that I admired as a customer before I ever bought it,” O’Neill says.

O’Neill says the Spoon is a reflection of Bloomington, a community he says has a special charm. But with the number of new buildings going up lately, he’s worried the character could disappear.

“It’s just amazing,” he says. “You look around, and it’s all happening very quickly.”

City of Bloomington Experiencing Rapid Growth

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates Bloomington’s population has grown by nearly 15,000 people in the last decade. It says there are about 85,000 residents, including Indiana University students.

“If you put these buildings up, at least try to make them somehow have their antenna plugged into the community.”

—Matt O'Neill, Runcible Spoon

All you have to do is take a look at the city’s changing downtown to see the impact. City leaders here are approving an increasing number of development petitions compared to the last few years. The Plan Commission approved 39 development proposals last year compared to 23 the year before.

Mayor John Hamilton wants to make changes that could impact the city’s growth.

“The question is how do we steer it to evolve in good ways, sensitive, creative ways that will build value and create the new Bloomington for the next generation of people,” Hamilton says.

Hamilton’s administration announced last week it wants to temporarily change Title 20 of the city’s Unified Development Ordinance. The changes would reduce the height and density a developer is automatically allowed to build. Hamilton says buildings higher than three stories or above a certain number of units would get a more thorough review based on three main categories: design, environmental impact, and affordability. He says it ensures the developments mesh well with the city.

However, if the developer’s proposal falls within those new restrictions, the plan commission has to approve it. And City Council member Isabel Piedmont-Smith says that’s been an issue in the past. Urban Station 2, a mixed-use development that includes retail space and apartments, is an example of the issue at hand. Piedmont-Smith, who also sits on the Plan Commission, says several city residents spoke out against the project. But the plan commission approved it in November.

“We can’t legally say, ‘eh we just don’t like your design, go away,’” Piedmont-Smith says. “Because they can sue us, and they can say this is discriminatory.”

Piedmont-Smith says updating the code would allow for more control over what’s being built.

Business advocacy group speaks out against proposal

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    Photo: Tyler Lake

    Anne Bono says the city isn’t giving the public much time to respond to the new proposal.

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    Photo: City of Bloomington

    Several city residents spoke out against the Urban Station 2 project, but it was approved last month.

The Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce, which represents nearly 900 businesses, is against the proposal.

Interim President and CEO Anne Bono says the city typically adopts a comprehensive master plan before changing the UDO to align with its vision. But the comprehensive master plan, which hasn’t been updated since 2002, isn’t expected to be approved until January.

“We do not want to see anything that tries to pass quietly or quickly.”

—Anne Bono, The Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce

“The city administration is taking one piece of the Unified Development Ordinance that they don’t agree with and updating it instead of really following through on this process that was discussed,” Bono says.

Bono says the city hasn’t been transparent. She says the organization wasn’t notified about the city’s proposed changes, despite being active in the master plan process. Now, she says there’s not much time for public input before a final vote is taken.

“We do not want to see anything that tries to pass quietly or quickly,” she says. “It’s really important to engage stakeholders and engage the public.”

But Hamilton says adopting the changes now, rather than after the comprehensive plan passes, prevents developers from rushing to get projects approved before the city enacts the more long-term rules.

And O’Neill supports that move. He says Bloomington still has the magic he felt 30 years ago, but the key is to preserve it.

“If you put these buildings up, at least try to make them somehow have their antenna plugged into the community,” O’Neill says. “Let them reflect what’s going on in the community. Let the architecture reflect that.”

The Bloomington Plan Commission takes up the proposed ordinance on Dec. 11. The vote then goes to the City Council two days later, and a final vote is expected on Dec. 20.

Correction: A previous version of this story said Bloomington’s population of about 85,000 did not include IU students. The number does include students. 

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