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What's The Deal With All These Empty Storefronts In Bloomington?

Bloomington Empty Retail

(Seth Tackett, WTIU/WFIU News)

It’s been a week since Thanksgiving and the holiday shopping season is officially in full force.  

But if you’re shopping around downtown Bloomington, you’re bound to pass some storefronts that don’t have stores in them.

That led resident Wolfgang von Buchler to ask: if nobody’s in these spaces now, why does the city keep requiring them on the ground floors of residential developments?

“My concern driving by there – I drive by there a lot – is why?” he asks. “Why this empty space?”

He asked City Limits to find out.

“I just feel like the city has never really explained itself and I’d like to know why,” von Buchler says. “And how successful is it?”

According to Bloomington Senior Zoning Planner Eric Greulich, the city first began pushing for stores, offices and other commercial occupants on the ground floors of new developments back in 2007, which was the last time Bloomington overhauled its zoning code, or Unified Development Ordinance.

“The desire when we updated the zoning code in 2007 was twofold: One, to have active ground floor space by requiring commercial space on the ground floor,” Greulich says. “And two, we didn’t want properties in our commercial corridors to be built completely with apartments.”

Prior to 2007, developers had begun building large apartment complexes downtown tailored to students.

 

Downtown Apartments 2
Apartments in downtown Bloomington (Zach Herndon, WTIU/WFIU News)

Greulich and Bloomington Director of Economic and Sustainable Development Alex Crowley say the city wanted to maintain downtown as center of economic activity and have buildings that people could interact with, rather than just stark apartment complexes.

“Imagine if those buildings went up and the only interaction you had on the sidewalk with them was the opening to get in the building, and the rest was a wall,” Crowley says. “There’s really very little going on on the street. And when you walk through, it’s kind of lonely; it’s not very pleasant.”

Mixed-Use Or Misuse?

So, the 2007 UDO mandated that on certain streets, no less than half of the total ground floor area in new developments had to be for commercial uses.

“Good planning practices say you want a mixed-use building that has an active, involved ground floor commercial component and then apartments above it to help supplement that use or other commercial uses,” Greulich says.

But the 2007 UDO was broad, as it mandated properties on 14 different streets had to provide nonresidential space on the ground floor. That’s led to an oversupply that sits vacant, so the city is addressing it in the new UDO.

“We’ve been more specific in the new zoning code of identifying, other than just overlay districts, even more focused on ‘these are the streets and corridors that we want ground floor’,” Greulich says.

The new, proposed ordinance shrinks the total area that requires ground floor commercial units and focuses it more around downtown.

“It’s not perfect; we haven’t figured it out exactly,” Crowley says. “But I think we are trying to achieve a level of livability and pedestrian friendliness. And, you know, sometimes the pendulum swings too far and you’ve gotta bring it back over and try to find that middle ground, which we’re trying to do.”

Greulich says though some spaces are still empty, the city decided to keep the requirement because more commercial units create more opportunities for potential businessowners to take a chance and open something up.

“If you’ve got five commercial spaces in the city to choose from, the cost of renting those spaces is gonna be pretty high,” he says. “If you’ve got 500 spaces to choose from, the cost is gonna be lower. So it helps small businessowners because they have a smaller start-up cost to get into these spaces.”

But Mark Lauchli, who’s a developer with Dwellings in Bloomington, says it’s tough to get tenants in commercial spaces – because a lot of retail is moving online.

“Going online – it’s really changing the way that people are living, shopping,” Lauchli says. “And so retail has been a real challenge in town.”

Bloomington Empty Retail
(Seth Tackett, WTIU/WFIU News)

Crowley says a lot of factors lead to empty spaces – including developer preferences – but one thing the city can do to attract businesses is simplifying the regulatory process.

“I think we can get out of the way sometimes in ways that we haven’t really done,” Crowley says. “And we’re looking at that and saying, ‘Hey, is there something that we’re doing that we should do differently that can help to facilitate activation of some spaces that really should be activated, except for maybe the interactions that are happening with the city.”

He also says the city is partnering with Downtown Bloomington, Inc. and Indiana University to study Bloomington retail this spring. The project will give the city a better idea of how many empty storefronts there actually are in Bloomington -- and the best ways to fill those units.

“There’s no silver bullet,” Crowley says. “Not one thing is gonna suddenly fill up all the retail spaces and we’re gonna be done. It’s gonna be sort of case-by-case. We’re gonna have to cobble together different solutions. My hope is in the next year or so we might have some interesting trials or actual implementations in places.”

If all goes according to plan, the Bloomington City Council will pass the UDO – and the new ground-floor policies – in about two weeks.

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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