The difficulties in changing bedroom suburbs into vibrant mixed-use places

What does it take for a bedroom suburb – the stereotypical placeless home to subdivision after subdivision – to change into something else? Here is a quick summary of the efforts in one Chicago suburb:

Bartlett was a typical “bedroom” community — people who worked in downtown Chicago took the train back and went straight home. The Metra station used to be surrounded by industrial buildings, said Tony Fradin, the village’s economic development coordinator. There was no reason to hang around downtown, and no practical way to avoid driving everywhere you needed to go.

The process of transit-oriented development, like the growing of a sapling into something that will provide shade, takes a long time and a lot of patience, said RTA and village officials. Bartlett got started by putting more development near its Metra station in 2005, replacing the obsolete industrial buildings with three-story condominiums and two-story mixed residential and retail space near the train. The complex includes the popular 2Toots Train Whistle Grill, which carries customers their food on a model train, and O’Hare’s Pub, which offers live music. The developments were backed by a tax-increment financing plan…

But the recession put a stop to further development. In 2013, Bartlett tried again to improve its downtown, applying for an RTA grant in 2014, and completing its TOD plan late last year, said Fradin.

Fradin said Bartlett hopes the plan, which includes ideas to improve pedestrian safety such as new crosswalks, will create a more urban, “walkable” feel. Bartlett plans to market a 1.8-acre site across from the Metra tracks and hopes to attract a developer in the next year or two for a high-density residential building, as outlined in the TOD plan. Another possible development site is a 5-acre, Metra-owned patch of land directly adjacent to the tracks, which Metra has held for years for possible parking.

Three things stand out to me from this example as well as the efforts I have observed in my research of suburban communities:

  1. These redevelopment efforts take time. The story above cites 2005 as the starting point of this kind of development and the suburb is still working at it twelve years later. One or two significant buildings or developments might be exciting but more is likely needed. The transformation of downtown Bartlett could take decades.
  2. Not all bedroom suburbs will be successful in developing a vibrant downtown, even if they follow all or many of the steps that characterized other successful suburbs. Sometimes it works but a lot of things – including internal decisions as well as outside forces that are beyond the control of a suburb – have to go right.
  3. Even if this more vibrant, around-the-clock downtown develops, it would be interesting to see what happens to all of the community since many do not live right downtown. Do these new developments around the train station cater primarily to young professionals? Do people from the edges of Bartlett regularly go to their own downtown or do they seek out other suburban spots (like Elgin or Woodfield/Schaumburg or the I-90 Corridor)? Do all residents want the quiet character of their bedroom suburb to change or feel that resources should be diverted toward

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