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How Fast Is Bloomington Really Growing?

Courthouse dome

(Seth Tackett, WFIU/WTIU News)

Four years ago, Peter Dorfman had a decision to make. He was looking for a place to retire.

“What I was doing was the ‘standard American thing,” Dorfman says. “I had built up 30 years of equity in a house; my wife retired; I work freelance so I could be anywhere.”

So the Dorfmans packed up their things in New Jersey and moved west to Bloomington, where they bought a house on the city’s west side.

“It just seemed to make sense to find a place where we could buy a house where the cost of living is lower, in the Midwest,” Dorfman says. “And we were very attracted to Bloomington because of the culture. It’s a college town – there’s a lot of creativity and intellectual thinking.”

But now, Dorfman says he has become concerned with the city’s Unified Development Ordinance and its plans for rezoning Bloomington’s west side to allow for denser neighborhoods. He says he understands the need for more housing in Bloomington, but when he looks at the numbers, he doesn’t see data that shows Bloomington as a rapidly-expanding city.

He asked City Limits to look into the issue.

“When can we see the data that shows us that Bloomington is growing fast enough to justify this upheaval?” Dorfman asks.

Peter Dorfman
Peter Dorfman shows reporter Mitch Legan some of the area that would be affected by the UDO. (Zach Herndon, WTIU/WFIU News)

It’s best to start with some context.

Bloomington has come a long way since the turn of the millennium, when about 69,000 people lived in the city.

Over the course of the decade, Bloomington increased by about a thousand people a year, meaning around 80,000 residents called it home in 2010.

Now, this decade is almost over, and Bloomington’s growth rate has slowed to about half of what it was. According to the most recent Census estimates, 85,000 people lived in the city in 2018. 

But Beth Rosenbarger, Bloomington’s Planning Services Manager, says a slowing growth rate is still a growth rate.

“The current population number from the census is an estimate, so it could be correct,” she says. “It could be that the population – the rate of growth – is slowing down. But not the fact that Bloomington is growing.”

Despite the recent slowdown, the Indiana Business Research Center predicts Bloomington will be the fourth-fastest growing metro area in Indiana by 2050. That would put it behind Indianapolis and its suburbs, the Lafayette area and Elkhart-Goshen.

With these projections, Rosenbarger says the city is left with a tough decision: balancing the need for housing with addressing climate change.

“Providing more housing within the city limits helps people have more access (to the city),” Rosenbarger says. “And it reduces transportation costs in terms of household cost burden and also greenhouse gas emissions.”

Dorfman said he was curious how making areas denser with population would help combat climate change. Wouldn’t more people in the same area mean more cars?

Dense Neighborhood on the city's west side
Dorfman fears that making neighborhoods denser will mean more cars. (Zach Herndon, WTIU/WFIU News)

“The idea is that these are walkable neighborhoods and you don’t need a car in a walkable neighborhood,” Dorfman says. “Well, I think the people who believe they are creating apartments here and expecting people to come and leave their cars somewhere else – this is a fantasy.”

Rosenbarger says although more people will inevitably mean more cars, there are 2,500 households in the city that do not have one. And statistics show Bloomington workers are very proactive about using other modes of transportation.

“Bloomington has a really high walk commute percentage, according to the census,” Rosenbarger says. “About 13 percent of people walk to work in Bloomington. That is really high. And the more we can promote that and make it easier for people to do, the more we can see that percentage grow as well.”

That is really high.

According to the Census’ 2017 American Community Survey, only 3 percent of Americans walk to work.

And that doesn’t include the people who take public transportation to work or school. So, when you add all that up, Bloomington’s residents are pretty environmentally friendly during their daily commutes.

That brings us to Dorfman’s final question, and the question that’s probably on a lot of residents’ minds – can’t city planners just focus on density someplace besides neighborhoods?

Aerial photo of downtown bloomington
Downtown Bloomington. (Seth Tackett, WTIU/WFIU News)

“We’d like to know why we’re being asked to make that sacrifice,” Dorfman says. “I’d like to know the practical impact. And I’m not hearing it.”

Rosenbarger says there are two main places the city can add more housing: the current site of IU Health Bloomington Hospital after it moves to the bypass, and the Sudbury Farm location just southeast of Twin Lakes.

“There could be a wide range of housing opportunities on both of those sites,” Rosenbarger says. “But it still won’t be enough, based on projection, to meet the demand throughout the community.”

She also added that even with slowing growth, the way housing trends in the U.S. have been going, densifying the city will be necessary.

“Throughout history in the U.S. the average household size has decreased,” Rosenbarger says. “So neighborhoods, even with the same number of homes, used to be denser than they are now. So just over time our neighborhoods used to hold more people than they currently do, just by the sheer fact that families have gotten smaller and housing preferences have changed.”

Residents such as Dorfman who are concerned with the UDO can now take it up with the city council, after the Bloomington Plan Commission voted earlier this week to recommend its adoption.

Have a question? Ask City Limits:

Our community is changing, from closing businesses to traffic and road construction to affordable housing, and we see the impact of these changes all around us.

We want to know: What questions do you have about how the Bloomington of tomorrow will impact your work, your personal life, your community and your future?

Here’s how it works: You submit a question you’d like us to explore about how Bloomington has changed over the past few decades, what you want to see for the city in the future and how ties with IU continue to shape the community.  

So: What do you wonder about how Bloomington is changing and how it impacts your life?

Interested in an ongoing conversation how Bloomington is changing? Join our Facebook group!

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

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