Chicago suburbs fight over new downtown development

New developments in suburban downtowns can bring praise and dissent as leaders and residents pursue different goals:

From northwest suburban Barrington to Clarendon Hills in DuPage County, a recent mini-boom in post-recession construction projects has sparked bitter battles over historic preservation and building heights and, in one case, a lawsuit by residents who claim a condominium project was illegally approved and would destroy their hometown’s quiet charms.

The stakes can be so high for community leaders that, in north suburban Highwood, officials have offered a local bocce club the chance to move into a new, $4 million facility in order to make way for a proposed five-story development. Yet where local leaders sometimes see a chance to revitalize aging commercial districts and bring in more tax revenue, existing residents and businesses often worry about what such changes will bring.

“It’s all a balancing act. How do you maintain the vibrancy of a downtown business district for the segment of the community that is clamoring for that, without destroying its history and everything that makes it a quaint village,” said Jason Lohmeyer, a recently elected Barrington village trustee…

Rachel Weber, an urban planning and policy associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the conflicts that frequently erupt between pro- and anti-development factions pit residents fearful of any dramatic changes to their hometown against those who view new development as essential to a healthy local economy.

I have found similar stories in my own research on suburbs. Community leaders often want a vibrant downtown: it can bring in more tax revenue (increased sales taxes, more money through property taxes if the land is improved) and avoid a languishing or sleepy downtown (a black mark) while replacing it with a lively place that draws in visitors and boosts the community’s image. Improving the downtown might become particularly important as a suburb grows in size or if it runs out of open space. Residents may want some of these things as well (lower taxes are good, lively shopping entertainment and cultural options nearby might be desirable) but can often resist development that is out of scale or challenges the quaint look of the downtown. Some of this is hyperbole – one resident in this story claims a three-story condo building is a “skyscraper” – yet residents worry that the suburb that moved into won’t be the same suburb later.

There are several ways to summarize this process and I’ll conclude with my own take as a sociologist studying suburbs:

  1. This is just NIMBY behavior from suburban residents. Some residents act as if they would like to freeze a community in time right when they move in. (There is some truth to this.)
  2. Suburban leaders are determined to grow, even if the residents don’t desire it and their community can’t handle much growth. This would lean toward a growth machines explanation where leaders want to benefit from local deals and make their mark. (There is some truth to this.)
  3. A more comprehensive view: situations like this demonstrate the negotiated aspect of a community’s character. Although large or consequential discussions between residents and leaders are relatively infrequent, some of these discussions over important areas – like downtowns where many people feel they have a stake – can have long-term effects. Because suburbs privilege local control and residents often have some measure of social status (income, education, homeownership), these discussions are bound to happen at some point. Some suburbs will veer toward a quainter character, some will aggressively court new growth and transform their downtown, and others will try to pursue a middle path of growth that matches the community’s character. Yet, these discussions are important to track and analyze if we want to understand how suburban development happens and how it matters for later outcomes.

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