The Rise of The Levee District

by Chris West
Cullinan Properties

A project long in the making, the Levee District is transforming East Peoria.

For most of the 20th century, the substantial swatch of land near the Illinois River in East Peoria was used to manufacture tractors and other heavy machinery. Today, what was once home to
Caterpillar Inc. factories is attracting shoppers, diners, hotel guests and thousands of others.

The Levee District has a rich history and a promising future, thanks to the vision of East Peoria city officials, the foresight of Cullinan Properties, and the confidence of a host of national retailers who have found a home on the property. The burgeoning 86-acre development may be unique in the Midwest, if not the nation, because of its successful redevelopment from an unsightly brownfield to a spectacular civic and shopping mecca.

Manufacturing began on the site in approximately 1902, with a Caterpillar-affiliated company taking control of the property in 1910. The location was ideal: adjacent to the Illinois River and rail connections, and in close proximity to downtown Peoria and what was to become Cat’s world headquarters. For 90 years, Caterpillar and its predecessors manufactured the finest earthmoving
equipment in the world there.

But times change. The East Peoria factory was Caterpillar’s oldest and most outdated when it was razed in 1998, leaving a concrete slab covering acres as far as the eye could see. But it wouldn’t remain a wasteland for long.

In 2000, East Peoria suggested buying the property for redevelopment, building on the city’s nearby successes. In the preceding and succeeding years, East Peoria engineered a transformation of its aging, industrial base, turning a shuttered power plant into the first Walmart Superstore in the area, building an Embassy Suites and convention center on the riverfront, and adding the first Bass Pro to central Illinois.

The crown jewel of this massive redevelopment is the Levee District. Several alternatives were considered for the site, but a mixed-use development, with heavy emphasis on retailing and civic
purposes, had the most potential.

Why? The growing communities on the east side of the Illinois River were dramatically underserved, with residents having to travel to Peoria or Bloomington-Normal to shop and dine. The location, across from downtown Peoria, lies in the heart of a metropolitan area with a population of 350,000. And Bass Pro, with three million visitors annually, proved there is a market for shoppers 25, 50 and even 100 miles away.

Cullinan Properties joined East Peoria as the master developer for the Levee District, a vibrant 500,000- square-foot center. Cullinan created a plan for the property like no other, and in short order, was able to attract Costco, Target, Gordmans and a 137-room Holiday Inn to the site.

Today, little more than a year after the opening of Costco—the first in downstate Illinois and the first new business in the Levee District—the development is 80-percent occupied. An outstanding mixture of local and national restaurants and retailers have already opened, and new additions were recently announced for 2014—Lane Bryant, Shoe Dept. Encore, Panda Express and McDonalds.

The Levee District is more than a place to shop and eat—much more. It is a public place, East Peoria’s new downtown. The Fondulac District Library recently opened a 32,000-square-foot facility, built after voters approved a $7 million tax referendum. A hiking/biking pathway connects Civic Plaza and the largest retailers with a trail that runs to Morton on the east and the 26-mile Rock Island Trail to the west. Plans are in the works for a new East Peoria City Hall, a band shell and welcoming green space.

Of course, there were significant hurdles to overcome. Cullinan became a partner on the project just as the economic downturn hit in 2008. The state of Illinois delayed for nearly 10 years the transfer of $26 million that built important infrastructure—roads and two bridges—essential to transforming the area. And attracting major national retailers to mid-market communities, and especially to a former industrial site, always has its challenges.

But Cullinan and its partners would not be deterred. East Peoria community leaders were steadfast, approving special taxing districts to provide critical financing. In return, real estate taxes have remained stable as the city depends more and more on sales tax revenues that have consistently increased. Voters showed confidence in approving the library tax referendum. State and federal leaders secured assistance for public infrastructure. In all, about $80 million in public investment helped attract more than $100 million in private funding.

Indeed, this has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The Levee District has done more than turn an aging industrial site into a shopping and dining hub. It has given East Peorians a reason to feel better about their community and themselves; it has increased community pride.

Chris West is partner and chief operating officer of Cullinan Properties Ltd., a multi-disciplined real estate firm that develops, manages and owns mixed-use retail, residential, office and medical properties throughout the United States. To learn more about The Levee District, visit theleveedistrict.com.