Avoiding the shame of Ogden Avenue in southwest Naperville

Thinking more about the decision in Naperville to turn down a car repair shop for a vacant property, I was reminded of how Naperville would prefer its retail areas to look: not like how Ogden Avenue has looked:

The idea is to update the look and feel of intersections and parkways along East Ogden Avenue so drivers know they’re in Naperville, shoppers find the area more inviting and businesses see it as primed for development, said Christine Jeffries, president of the Naperville Development Partnership…

And my own comments on this:

But, I would suggest there is a deeper issue: can these kinds of improvements truly lead to more development and a stronger sense of community? East Ogden Avenue is like many sizable suburban streets: it is fronted by numerous businesses (ranging from restaurants to auto care facilities to big box stores to home converted to offices), there are signs and buildings everywhere, and has numerous cut-outs to the road. To many, this look is not very attractive. These are the sorts of streetscapes that wealthier suburbs today try to avoid even if they were common several decades ago.

Does putting signs at intersections, putting in new landscaping, burying power lines, and rebranding the stretch “Uptown Naperville” really change what is there? It may look nicer. It may tell people more clearly that they are in Naperville (God forbid that they are in Lisle). But, is this the true answer to a kind of development that is outdated and disliked? I am skeptical. Just contrast this stretch to downtown Naperville where a certain level of density and vibrancy leads to an exciting scene. The stretch on Ogden is too long, too broken up, devoid of attractive residential units (though they are often just behind the businesses), and difficult to connect.

In other words, higher-status suburbs want to avoid stretches along major roads that are marked by fast-food restaurants, car dealers and car repair places, strip malls, signs for retailers and businesses, and endless curb cuts. These may be quintessential American stretches – everything is accessible by car, it separates these uses from residential areas, it crassly shows off consumerism – but they are not considered aesthetically pleasing nor do the businesses that locate there tend to cater to a wealthier clientele.

The step up from this jumble of businesses would be the locations of retailers and businesses around shopping malls and “lifestyle centers.” These nodes are increasingly organized around entertainment and eating. They offer opportunities to have a single unifying aesthetic as well as walkability within the development. This is what Naperville has aimed for in Naperville Crossings with a large movie theater, numerous restaurants, and smaller retailers. It is supposed to look more like a small town and be less threatening to nearby upscale housing.

One final thought about Naperville Crossings: even within a wealthy suburb like Naperville, there is vacant space in an upscale development that has been open for quite a while. It is hard to know whether this reflects on Naperville and the surrounding area or is indicative of broader headwinds facing businesses and retailers.

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