30 Years of Cullinan Properties

by Lisa Ullenius

For three decades, this real estate development firm has continued to grow… in the Peoria area and beyond.

Every career has its starting point, and for Diane Cullinan Oberhelman, chairman and founding partner of Cullinan Properties, Ltd., that beginning was in a busy, local real estate office. “I started in the real estate business in the early ‘80s working for Jim Maloof Realtor,” she recalls. “Jim was a positive life force and hard worker who cared deeply about the region.

“It was a wonderful experience because I met so many people and learned so much,” she continues with a smile. “But the office was so full that I was required to share a small desk behind the receptionist, and back her up on calls.”

These formative years, coupled with Cullinan Oberhelman's fascination with building projects and the positive impact they had on the creation of jobs and community vitality, inspired her to take the risk of launching her own firm. In 1988, she hired an assistant and rented office space in a white brick building at the corner of Knoxville and War Memorial Drive. Thus began the 30-year history of Cullinan Properties, Ltd., which has led to the company having a nationwide presence.

The Business of Development
As the firm grew during the 1990s, Cullinan Properties established itself as a unique development company for landmark projects in central Illinois. The firm worked to develop Lake of the Woods Plaza in Dunlap and Hamilton Square in Peoria, and redevelop the Pabst Building in Peoria Heights. Another iconic project from this period was the Weaver Ridge Golf Club & Housing Development—a  400-acre development that integrated single-family homes alongside an 18-hole championship golf course. 

As the calendar flipped from 1999 to 2000, Cullinan made its mark in Peoria's Riverfront District with One Technology Plaza, the area’s largest office building, which housed Peoria’s FBI headquarters and the Attorney General’s office, among others. The firm also dug in further to the mixed-use market, developing projects that combined retail and residential with office, restaurant, entertainment or hotel components. Most notable was the Grand Prairie Developments, which began as a 75-acre retail project and led to hundreds of acres of multi-family, residential, entertainment, office and hospitality uses. 

Partner and Chief Executive Officer Christopher West, who joined Cullinan in the early 2000s, knew The Shoppes at Grand Prairie would be significant. “It's special for me in particular because it was my first project with Cullinan. Along with doing tremendous things for the growth of north Peoria, it really helped put our firm on the map,” he states. “It was our first large-scale mixed-use project and gave rise to other projects we've completed since.”

During the 2000s, Cullinan extended itself regionally and also expanded into the healthcare field. 2005 saw the development of The Shoppes at College Hills in Normal, as well as the purchase of the Quincy Mall. “College Hills came on the heels of The Shoppes at Grand Prairie and was a natural extension for us,” West says. “The property was not operating successfully as an enclosed mall, and we worked with the town to redevelop the property into something that the community would support.”

This sense of “community good” is the driving force behind all of Cullinan's projects, and the inspiration behind Diane Cullinan Oberhelman’s daughter, Kathleen Cullinan Brill, who currently serves as vice president and director of leasing, joining the company in 2006. “We work closely with our clients and communities to develop properties that benefit all,” Cullinan Brill says. “The ripple effect of these projects is exponential. They create jobs, fuel local economies and contribute to quality of place. Creating what consumers want—and benefitting the communities in which these developments are located—is critical to long-term success.” 

From Regional to National
Cullinan Properties hit its stride as a national firm in the 2010s, capable of delivering a variety of product types in markets throughout the country. In 2013, the firm developed the Department of Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic in Austin, Texas. Located on a 35-acre campus, the 275,000-square-foot building was the largest of its type in the country at the time. In addition, Cullinan Properties developed the Streets of St. Charles, a mixed-use project in metro St. Louis. 

“Streets is a distinctive, 26-acre mixed-use community that includes all the latest amenities for sophisticated living, casual and elegant dining, retail shopping, modern offices, hospitality and entertainment,” West reports. Cullinan Oberhelman further explains the development. “I refer to this project as ‘a city within a city,’ due to its location and features right on site. This property speaks to our strategy of creating a diverse and energetic mixed-use environment where people can live, work, shop, dine and play.”

Currently, Cullinan Oberhelman is excited about Rock Run Crossings in Joliet. The 265-acre site, which sits at the crossroads of I-55 and I-80, was purchased in 2015 and will incorporate entertainment, retail, hotel, office/medical and multifamily components. “This development will not only cater to those who live in the immediate area, but to those traveling to the Chicago area from points south, west and east,” she explains. “There is fantastic exposure and visibility from the interstate... well over one million vehicles pass the site every week.” While clearing at the site has begun, initial tenant openings are expected in the spring of 2020.

With regional and national developments always in progress, Cullinan has needed to physically expand its own corporate footprint. After occupying several locations in Peoria over the years, the base of operations for its Peoria-based employees today is a prominent, five-story glass building just off I-74 in East Peoria. In addition, the firm opened a Chicago office in 2003, followed by a St. Louis branch in 2008. “These satellite locations serve as springboards for Cullinan Properties,” says West. “That expanded presence helps us enter and thrive in additional markets.” 

The company has indeed thrived over the past three decades. To date, Cullinan has developed more than $1 billion in retail, office, governmental, medical and multifamily projects, with mixed-use projects comprising a majority of the total portfolio.

All About the Team
Cullinan Properties’ success is always attributed to the team of professionals employed there. “Our strength as an organization lies in our ability to be a full-service provider with team expertise in development, management, leasing, finance, marketing and tenant coordination,” states Diane Cullinan Oberhelman. Several employees have been a part of this team for a good portion of Cullinan’s 30-year history, including Kim LeHew, senior real estate representative, and Mike Owens, chief investment officer and president of Cullinan’s Office and Medical Division. 

Born and raised in Peoria, Owens was brought back to the area from Chicago to head Cullinan’s Investments Division, and is now also leading its growth in medical development projects. Reflecting on the firm’s early years, he remarks, “We were creating mixed-use developments long before it became more commonplace to do so, and we’ve always strived to be a dependable resource for our clients’ real estate needs from the very early stages of a project to the end.”

This hard-working team has brought Cullinan Properties numerous awards and affiliations over the decades, including its recent certification by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC). This national certification process, which validates majority ownership/management of a business by a woman or women, is an arduous one. “The documentation was rigorous,” notes Anaise Berry, Cullinan's director of marketing and communications. “But it allows us to now compete for real-time business opportunities provided by WBENC corporate members and government agencies, which is great for the company.”

Another forward-thinking venture is the Cullinan KickStart program, which offers local entrepreneurs a variety of lease and financing options specifically tailored to their needs, along with ongoing guidance from retail leasing experts and marketing support. Several businesses have taken advantage of the Quincy Mall pilot program since it was launched in June 2017, and plans are to expand it to other locations in the future.

Cullinan prides itself on the communities it serves—beyond the real estate investments or the jobs supported by its developments. “We understand that successful economic development is only possible in communities that have healthy nonprofits that address community needs and issues,” explains Sean Garrett, president of acquisitions and director of community relations. “When we undertake a project, we view ourselves as a partner with both the municipality and nonprofit community.” 

Along with corporate giving, sponsorships and items such as Levee District gift baskets for fundraisers, the firm also contributes in more subtle ways. “We use local contractors and vendors whenever possible,” Garrett continues, “and we contribute to each Chamber of Commerce in the communities where we have projects. Our team members are active volunteers in local organizations. Making a positive change in the community is a common element that unites everyone at Cullinan Properties.”

From a two-person operation in a small Peoria office to a 75-plus-member team at three locations, Cullinan Properties’ 30-year track record has indeed proven to be a successful one. “Cullinan is a local company with national reach,” West explains. “Diversification of our portfolio has always been a strong focus for us. It has allowed us to start and complete so many great projects, even during economic downturns and recessions.” 

Wherever the next development turns up, one thing is clear: Cullinan Properties is here to stay. “Peoria always has been and will continue to be our home base,” says Cullinan Oberhelman. “It is the heart of the company.” iBi

Cullinan Properties, LTD. is a full service real estate/development company offering residential and commercial brokerage, asset and construction management, investment services, acquisition services, market analysis, site selection, and financial analysis. Founded in Peoria in 1988, Cullinan also has offices in Chicago and St. Louis.

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