Several large mounds of dirt sit in empty lots in Peoria’s historic Old Town district.
Vacant or aging buildings — many in disrepair — are close by, near the corner of Washington Street and 83rd Avenue.
The mounds of dirt are leftover from the August demolition of four buildings to make way for redevelopment on the block.?
City officials see it as progress in Peoria's vision of developing the area into a thriving section of the city.
Meanwhile, a citywide code-enforcement initiative has led to the destruction of older buildings and homes in Old Town that the owners can't afford to repair. City officials insist that the rejuvenation and enforcement efforts are separate.
But some residents say the city is paying lip service to historical preservation while pressuring them to demolish older homes in need of repair.
"They want to tear down the houses, make vacant lots, buy it for cheap and redevelop it," said Joe Puckett, 68, a lifelong Peoria resident.
The city hasn't acquired any lots where owners tore down aging structures.
Puckett said he's under pressure from the city code enforcement unit to tear down a 1920 frame wood house that belonged to his great-grandmother. The house is just a block south of the Washington Street redevelopment site.
"I literally have four generations of family treasures stored there. The only option I have right now is to tear it down or let them tear it down," he said. "The city has always devalued the history of this community."
Susan Daluddung, deputy city manager, said Peoria is enforcing its code on vacant, abandoned and unsafe structures. The code-enforcement project started in May, and so far eight properties in Old Town have received code notices, said Jennifer Stein, a city spokeswoman.
The four buildings acquired and demolished by the city reflect two city efforts coinciding in one place, said Jay Davies, who oversees Peoria police's code enforcement unit.
He said the demolished structures — including a former fire administration building and two abandoned churches — were not up to code, but he wasn't aware of the city's block redevelopment effort.
"There is no better example of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing," said Davies. "It's a separate issue."
Earlier this year, the city authorized spending of about $785,000 for revitalization efforts on what is called the Washington Street block, which is bordered by 83rd Avenue and 83rd Drive and Washington and Jefferson streets. In addition to the demolitions, the money covers the cost of acquiring the land from private owners, planning projects and environmental testing.
Development and Engineering Director Andy Granger called the demolitions on the Washington Street block a "significant first step" in revitalizing the area and the commercial core.
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The city has no specific plans for the empty land, Planning Director Chris Jacques said. Temporary landscaping will beautify the area while officials seek planning firms to identify a use for the lots. An overall strategy for development will require City Council approval.
Although the city has worked to maintain the historical element of Old Town, the four demolished buildings were found to have no historical significance, Jacques said.
He said Old Town is not zoned as an historical district, and the city's main agenda is to improve and modernize offerings in the area.
"While Old Town is the heart of the city and has several historic buildings that are worthy of preservation, it is not proposed as a ‘historic district’ in the regulatory sense of the word," Jacques said. "What we are trying to do is a balance of the old and new."
In the meantime, the city hopes the absence of the buildings on land purchased by the city will send a message of progress to Peoria residents, Granger said.
“It’s one of the first steps we’ve taken on private property,” he said. “Just taking down those buildings had a good effect on the aesthetics.”
But down the street, the dirt mounds are sending a message of destruction, not progress.
On a recent cloudy morning, William Thompson pulled a rake over granite pebbles in the empty lot where a 1920s wooden home with a metal roof used to stand.
The 61-year-old demolished the unoccupied home at the corner of 85th Avenue and Jefferson Street on Nov. 8 after the city deemed it "unfit for human occupancy" in October as part of its code-enforcement initiative.
“It stood like that for 30 years," said Thompson, who still lives next door.
"There is no possible way I can bring a house that was built in 1929 up to the day’s code. The saddest thing is the city should've approached us and offer us some help if they wanted us to tear down this old house. If you don't go to the council meetings or have connections, you're not going to get anything from the city of Peoria. It's despicable.
“I’ve lived here all my life, this is an old farming community, I’ve never been treated this way by the city," said Thompson, who paid $4,300 to demolish the structure.
Behind him, two pink dumpsters filled with concrete blocks and other rubble sit atop a dirt lot on the corner of 85th Avenue and Madison Street. An old community grocery store that some residents considered historic was recently torn down by the owner after the city served code notices.
The Old Town area, bordered by Peoria Avenue and Monroe Street to the north and south and 87th and Grand avenues on the west and east, was one of the city's earliest neighborhoods.
Jacques said the history is an important driver of the kind of developments the city hopes to see in Old Town.
“This is the heart of the city,” he said. “This is where it started.”
At the corner of Washington Street and 83rd Avenue, an aging fire station was recently converted into a distillery and bar.
Lucidi Distilling Co.’s Fire Station No. 1 opened in February, the first major redevelopment in Old Town. The design pays tribute to the city’s first fire station, which opened in 1954 and was operational until 2006.
Christopher Lucidi said he was attracted to the area when Peoria rezoned Old Town as an entertainment district in 2012. He said the draw of the old fire station cannot be manufactured at other locations.
“There’s this whole adaptive reuse push,” Lucidi said from beneath the handmade lamps and historical decorations in the distillery’s seating area. “You either have it or you have to fake it. But then it just doesn’t feel authentic.”
He said he hopes the distillery will see an increase in customers as more businesses move into the area.
Puckett, the lifelong resident who does not want to tear down his great-grandmother's home, said he supports commercial redevelopment but sees no reason for the residential code violations.
“Improving the businesses, I like that, but I don’t want to see my neighbors being harassed, and I don’t want to be harassed because they are going after residential properties, which I don’t see any need for,” he said.
Despite Lucidi’s success, other pieces of Peoria’s vision for Old Town are still waiting to take shape.
Aside from the four demolished buildings,the city may redevelop a former laundromat and the past site of a blacksmith and hardware store, Jacques said.
Less than a block from Lucidi’s on Washington Street, a large, boarded-up hotel sits in disrepair. Jacques said the city offered to purchase it but couldn’t come up with the funding to match the owner’s price.
He said it is frustrating when property owners hold onto such buildings and let them fall into disrepair.
“Every city has to grapple with buildings maintaining their property standards,” he said. “People get an impression with boarded-up buildings. We want to improve that perception.”
Other properties the city is hoping to redevelop include an old bookstore at Jefferson and Washington streets, the vacant Peoria Place shopping area and the aging Smitty’s Building that once held a grocery store.
Jacques said the key will be completing improvements for the land and identifying ideal uses for the city’s investment.
“We have to figure out what is the best and highest use,” he said. “And how do we use the properties in the meantime.”