A downtown law firm no more

A law firm in Austin, TX is leaving its downtown location for the suburbs:

Law firm Bowman and Brooke LLP [website] is vacating its current location at 600 Congress Ave. and heading to more suburban digs southwest of downtown [about 6 miles away, map here]….“Yes, price was a consideration but we’re not getting a tremendous difference in rent costs. There are other things that entered in like tenant improvement costs, and parking had a significant impact,” [Michelle Bailey, chief of operations] said.

The company had no parking allocation downtown and at its new location it will have 96 complimentary spaces for 44 employees — more than enough.

The article notes that “finding large blocks of office space [in downtown Austin] is somewhat akin to going on a treasure hunt” and suggests that lawyers “are now being challenged for territorial rights by emerging technology and energy firms.” In other words, plenty of businesses still want a downtown presence, and rents are being bid up by new entrants. This sounds more like a story of urban revival than suburban sprawl to me, though the two are clearly linked here.

Perhaps a more fascinating revelation, however, is Bowman and Brooke determination that it “wasn’t necessary for its attorneys to be downtown, close to other law firms and courthouses” because “[w]e tend to be a national firm with our attorneys flying all over the country” and “we don’t have a lot of local interaction.” What does it mean to practice law without significant local interaction, especially when one is “a nationally recognized trial firm that defends corporate clients in widely publicized catastrophic injury and wrongful death claims“? While simply having a downtown (rather than a suburban) office location may do little to humanize a corporate law firm, it seems telling that Bowman and Brooke seems to place such a low priority on engaging its local community.

Not what you want to advertise: Naperville to add more police downtown

Naperville is a big suburb that has been known in the past for being wealthy and safe. However, some recent events are leading to a change: more police presence in its lively downtown.

Police Chief Bob Marshall told the City Council Tuesday he has seen “a trend of relatively serious crimes,” in the past few months since officers who were helping patrol the downtown over the summer returned to their regular duties in area schools. Incidents have included two violent fights and an armed robbery in addition to last February’s fatal stabbing of 24-year-old Naperville teacher Shaun Wild at a downtown bar.

Marshall said he is taking a more proactive approach to weekend patrols by adding police officers to the beat as well as both uniformed and plain-clothes investigators…

Councilman Bob Fieseler said he does not believe most Naperville residents are partaking in the late-night activity they are paying police to monitor, and the city may want to consider closing bars an hour earlier, which would mean midnight on weeknights and 1 a.m. on weekends…

Councilman Joe McElroy called shortening hours “the nuclear option,” but agreed the city may eventually have to look at doing so as a last resort. He also would like to see more activities like theater and live music offered in the downtown as an alternative to getting drunk.

This highlights two suburban conundrums. First, lots of suburbs would like to have downtowns like Naperville that include national retail stores, local businesses, and plenty of restaurants and bars. These businesses bring in visitors and, more importantly, money to the city’s coffers. Yet, bars can also bring about a different kind of atmosphere that is less family-friendly. Second, Naperville says it has small-town charm and yet its size, which could be related to perceptions about crime and the presence of multiple bars, suggests the city has some qualities of bigger cities. What is Naperville really: an idyllic single-family home community or a thriving jobs and suburban cultural center?

My guess is that Naperville would prefer to keep this increase police preference as unobtrusive as possible. A very visible presence might be bad for business but more incidents could also be bad for business.

Plans for purchase of Wheaton Grand Theater; hope for larger economic impact

Many older American downtowns are looking for ways to bring in new business and revenues. One way to achieve this is to pursue entertainment opportunities. Here is how this is currently playing out in Wheaton, Illinois where there is a perspective buyer for the Wheaton Theater:

Downtown property owner and lifelong Wheaton resident Jim Atten said he has “verbally agreed” to buy the theater, constructed in 1925, from Elmhurst-based Suburban Bank and Trust.

“It’s going to take a while to do, but our plan is to turn it into a performing arts and movie theater,” Atten said…

Atten said, if the purchase goes through, an extensive fundraising effort will be launched to make a dent in the necessary repairs and remodeling in the building, which he estimated could be about $5 million…

The theater closed in the 1990s and after an unsuccessful attempt by the Wheaton Grand Theater Corp. to revive it by hosting concerts, the deed was given up to the bank after coming up short on a loan payment.

Last year, Wheaton voters rejected a proposal to let the city use $150,000 in public funds each year to renovate the building…

Still, [Wheaton mayor] Gresk said the expected purchase is a “wonderful, huge first step.”

We’ll see how this moves forward. The benefits of a theater for a smaller downtown could be large: theaters can generate money themselves but can also attract other business as theater goers eat and shop nearby, festivals could make use of the space (think film, music, art, and theater festivals), and this building could serve as an example of how to effectively remodel and utilize older spaces. Smaller downtowns need spaces like this to succeed, partly to help provide energy and people for all of the downtown but also to make good use of storefront space that might be difficult to fill with other uses.

Property values, city finances, and downtown development: controversy over approved senior housing in downtown Wheaton

New development projects in already-developed suburban areas can attract controversy. Here is an example from downtown Wheaton, Illinois: the city council just approved a senior housing project but some of the neighbors are not happy with the change to the site and there are some questions about funding and whether the city will be left with a bill.

The council voted 4-3 this week to allow construction of a 167-unit facility on a site once slated for luxury condominiums as part of the Courthouse Square complex at the corner of Naperville Road and Willow Avenue…

The approval came after nine planning and zoning board meetings totaling more than 24 hours with testimony from experts, opponents and supporters. In a nearly unanimous vote in August, that board recommended the council deny the zoning plans.

The original proposal for the complex, supported by the council in 2004, called for a mix of townhouses and condos. But developers cited the housing market crash when they pulled the plug on what were supposed to be the second and third midrise buildings. Northfield-based Focus Development Inc. and West Chicago-based Airhart Construction Corp. partnered on the project.

The saga continued when developers asked to amend the plan to allow senior housing, angering some Courthouse Square residents who argued they were promised a strictly residential community when they bought their units.

I’m not sure how this will all play out in court and whether the current residents have a case against the developers. However, here are a few thoughts about this:

1. Senior citizen housing would be helpful in Wheaton. As a more mature community that is relatively wealthy, there are relatively less places in the community for seniors to live in affordable housing. Indeed, when communities like Wheaton do talk about affordable, they tend to be talking about seniors and young people who would like to be in the community but don’t have the resources due to their stage in life to remain.

2. Wheaton has been on a longer program of introducing more housing into the downtown, starting with the condominiums built in the early 1990s across the street from the downtown train station. While higher-end housing might bring in more revenue and people who have more spending power to spread around the downtown, having some development in this space rather than none might be preferable.

3. Like in many suburban debates about development, it sounds like this is partly (mainly?) about property values. The existing residents don’t want their higher-end units to suffer because senior-citizen housing is built nearby instead of other high end units. This could be one of those situations where it would help to take a bigger view: Wheaton would like to offer more affordable housing for seniors and this land is available so perhaps property values can’t or shouldn’t be the overriding concern here.

4. More than ever because of the economic crisis, revenues matter in these situations. Some are concerned that the city, and therefore, taxpayers, might be on the hook if the development doesn’t work out in a certain way. This would be a strike against downtown redevelopment plans; the goal is to generate new revenues, property and sales taxes, not saddle the municipality with new costs.

Chicago leads big cities in increasing downtown populations between 2000 and 2010

The residential population in the downtown of a number of American big cities grew between 2000 and 2010 and Chicago led the way:

The report found that the number of people living within two miles of Chicago’s City Hall rose 36 percent from 2000 to 2010. Though many of the largest U.S. cities experienced a similar trend in the last decade, Chicago outpaced them all in that category.

More than 48,000 moved to downtown Chicago in the last decade, according to the report. New York City saw a 9.3 percent increase in its downtown population, or about 37,000 people…

Rob Paral, a Chicago demographer, says the city’s downtown population growth reflects several underlying economic factors, including downtown revitalization and an expanding job market.

But though places like the South Loop and West Loop have benefited from the trend, Paral says, its effects quickly fade the farther out you go.

“There’s a big difference between what you see in downtown and what you see in other parts of the city,” he said. “We wish it would be happening within 20 miles of City Hall, but no city has that kind of prosperity.”

In other words: one of the wealthy areas of the city continues to grow while less well-off areas struggle to tackle social problems while facing declining population. I assume this report will be spun by Mayor Emanuel and others to suggest that Chicago is resurgent even in tough economic times. However, a city is not just its downtown.

Naperville planning and zoning commission approves “game-changing” Water Street development

Naperville is moving forward with plans for an important downtown development on Water Street:

Commissioners voted 5-2 early Thursday morning to recommend approval of Marquette Companies’ MP Water Street District LLC project, which calls for a 130-room Holiday Inn Express and Suites, a 551-space parking garage, 63 rental apartments and 16,000 square feet of separate office space. The proposal next goes to the city council…

Several residents, however, pleaded for the commission to deny the plan, saying seven-story buildings don’t fit the character of downtown and will add to traffic and parking problems…

“It’s almost like taking a big white elephant and putting it next to our little, historical village commercial center. It doesn’t compute,” O’Hale said. “It’s not in the spirit of our village. It’s a big, white, monolithic, monstrous elephant and it flies in the face of everything we value in our city.”…

But supporters argued a hotel is the only thing missing from downtown and could pump life and dollars back into the central business district.

In the end, a majority of commissioners said the time has come to change the face of downtown.

It is hard to tell at the time but this development has the makings of something big for downtown Naperville. Because it includes moving the downtown south across the DuPage River in a major way plus adding a hotel to the downtown and another parking garage, this suggests Naperville is serious about continuing to expand the downtown as well as make it more dense. It sounds like some spectators also think this is an important moment. The comments by O’Hale are intriguing; I wouldn’t classify Naperville’s downtown as a “little, historical village commercial center.” The downtown has several parking garages, parking and congestion issues, and a number of restaurants and stores. That horse was out of the barn a few decades ago. Yet, the spirit of the downtown could indeed change in the years ahead as Naperville figures out how it wants to mature.

It will be interesting to see how the discussion with the City Council goes.

Questions about a study of the top Chicago commuter suburbs

The Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul just released a new study that identifies the “top [20] transit suburbs of metropolitan Chicago.” Here is the top 10, starting with the top one: LaGrange, Wilmette, Arlington Heights, Glenview, Elmhurst, Wheaton, Downers Grove, Naperville, Des Plaines, and Mount Prospect. Here is the criteria used to identify these suburbs:

The DePaul University team considered 45 measurable factors to rank the best transit suburbs based on their:

1. Station buildings and platforms;

2. Station grounds and parking;

3. Walkable downtown amenities adjacent to the station; and

4. Degree of community connectivity to public transportation, as measured by the use of commuter rail services.

A couple of things strike me as interesting:

1. These tend to be wealthier suburbs but not the wealthiest. On one hand, this seems strange as living in a nicer place doesn’t necessarily translate into nicer mass transit facilities (particularly if more people can afford to drive). On the other hand, having a thriving, walkable downtown nearby is probably linked to having the money to make that happen.

2. There are several other important factors that influence which suburbs made the list:

Communities in the northern and northwestern parts of the region tended to outperform those in the southern parts, with much of the differences due to their published Walk Scores. Similarly, communities on the outer periphery of the region tend to have lower scores due to the tendency for the density of development to decline as one moves farther from downtown Chicago. As a result, both Walk Scores and connectivity to transit tended to be lower in far-out suburbs than closer-in ones.

It might be more interesting here to pick out suburbs that buck these trends and have truly put a premium on attractive transportation options. For example, can a suburb 35 miles out of Chicago put together a mass transit facilities that truly draw new residents or does the distance simply matter too much?

3. I’m not sure why they didn’t include “city suburbs.” Here is the explanation from the full report (p.11 of the PDF):

All suburbs with stations on metropolitan Chicago’s commuter-rail system, whether they are located in Illinois or Indiana, are considered for analysis except those classified as city suburbs, such as Evanston, Forest Park, and Oak Park, which have CTA rapid transit service to their downtown districts. Gary, Hammond, and Whiting, Indiana, also are generally considered cities or city suburbs rather than conventional suburbs, because all of these communities have distinct urban qualities. To assure meaningful and fair comparisons, these communities were not included in the study.

Hammond is not a “conventional suburb”? CTA service isn’t a plus over Metra commuter rail service?

4. The included suburbs had to meet three criteria (p.11 of the PDF):

1) commuter-rail service available seven days a week, with at least 14 inbound departures on weekdays, including some express trains;
2) at least 150 people who walk or bike to the train daily; and
3) a Walk Score of at least 65 on a 100-point scale at its primary downtown station (putting it near the middle of the category, described as “somewhat walkable”).

This is fairly strict criteria so not that many Chicago suburbs qualified for the study (p.11 of the PDF):

Twenty-five communities, all on the Metra system, met these three criteria (Figure 2). All were adjacent to downtown districts that support a transit-oriented lifestyle and tend to have a transit culture that many find appealing. Numerous communities, such as Buffalo Grove, Lockport, and Orland Park, were not eligible because they do not currently meet the first criteria, relating to train frequency. Some smaller suburbs, such as Flossmoor, Kenilworth and Glencoe, while heavily oriented toward transit, lack diversified downtown amenities and the services of larger stations, and therefore did not have published Walk Scores above the minimum threshold of 65.

I can imagine what might happen: all suburbs in the top 20 are going to proclaim that they are a top 20 commuter suburb! But it was only out 25…

5. There are some other intriguing methodological bits here. Stations earned points for having coffee available or displaying railroad heritage. Parking lot lighting was measured this way (p.24 of the PDF):

The illumination of the parking lot was evaluated using a standard light meter. Readings were collected during the late-evening hours between June 23 and July 5, 2012 at three locations in the main parking lots:
1) locations directly under light poles (which tend to be the best illuminated parts of the lots);
2) locations midway between the light poles (which tend to be among the most poorly illuminated parts of the lot); and
3) tangential locations, 20 and 25 feet perpendicular to the alignment of light poles and directly adjacent to the poles (in some cases, these areas having lighting provided from lamps on adjacent streets).

At least three readings were collected for category 1 and at least two readings were collected for categories two and three.

There is no widely accepted standard on parking lot lighting that balances aesthetics and security. Research suggests, however, that lighting of 35 or more lumens is preferable, but at a minimum, 10 lumens is necessary for proper pedestrian activity and safety. Scores of parking lot illuminate were based on a relative scale, as noted below. In effect, the scales grades on a “curve”, resulting in a relatively equal distribution of high and low scores for each category. In several instances, Category 3 readings were not possible due to the configuration of the parking lot. In these instances, final scores were determined by averaging the Category 1 and 2 scores.

I don’t see any evidence that commuters themselves were asked about the amenities though there was some direct observation. Why not also get information directly from those who consistently use the facilities?

Overall, I’m not sure how useful this study really is. I can see how it might be utilized by some interested parties including people in real estate and planners but I don’t know that it really captures enough of the full commuting experience available to suburbanites in the Chicago suburbs.

Wheaton to get new downtown overpass – for pedestrians

The City of Wheaton has long looked into the possibility of an overpass in or near the downtown so that traffic could avoid the frequent trains on the Union Pacific (formerly Chicago & Northwestern) tracks. It looks like Wheaton is going to pursue an overpass in the next year, but only for pedestrians:

In 2010, Metra officials had announced plans for the proposed pedestrian overpass, as part of more than $3 million worth of improvements that Metra and the Union Pacific Railroad had drawn up for the Wheaton depot. The work also was to include moving the Wheaton station’s platforms entirely west of West Street.The project had been set to be completed in 2011 but hit a snag, Metra officials said, after complications related to gaining a needed easement from a private landowner on the south side of the tracks. Without that easement, the work could not proceed, said Metra spokesman Michael Gillis…

The pedestrian overpass would be the first of its kind at Wheaton’s Metra station. The College Avenue station, a mile or so east, has a pedestrian tunnel, but Wheaton Metra commuters have no easily available bypass to get from one side of the tracks to the other.

Gillis said the pedestrian overpass would be constructed between 530 and 550 feet west of the West Street rail crossing.

It appears this was first announced in the Metra “On the Bi-Level” newsletter for the UP West line March 2009. I’ll be curious to see how this overpass looks and how it fits in with the surrounding area.

This will be helpful at the downtown commuter train station. However, it doesn’t help with a vehicular traffic and congestion issue in Wheaton: getting over the railroad tracks when going north-south. The bridge on Manchester Road is helpful but it requires going out of the way and it not right along the Gary Avenue/Main Street/Naperville Road corridor.

My take on why such a vehicular overpass has not been built is that it would change the historic downtown too much. Proposals made in the past would have required severely altering the Main Street/Front Street intersection, home to some of downtown Wheaton’s oldest buildings. Better options may have included extending Naperville Road across the tracks but this runs into the Courthouse area, the library, and a residential neighborhood and the Gary Avenue corridor is more residential. In the end, Wheaton may just have to live with trains stopping traffic: those same trains gave the community a reason for existing as Wheaton was initially founded around the then Galena & Chicago Union railroad tracks in the 1850s.

Naperville moving forward with proposal for influential mixed-use Water Street development

An important new development proposal in Naperville is back up for discussion:

Plans to develop the Water Street area of Naperville’s downtown are being revived after five years and now include a 130-room hotel.

However, the latest proposal will have to overcome concerns from city officials and residents about issues of height, density and traffic congestion.

Marquette Companies, under the name MP Water Street District LLC, presented its revised plan to the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission this week. The 2.4-acre site is bounded by Aurora Avenue on the south, the DuPage River on the north, Main Street on the east and Webster Street on the west…

The current proposal calls for a 130-room Holiday Inn Express and Suites; 61 to 65 apartments; retail, restaurant and office spaces; and a 550-space parking garage. There also would be a plaza and connection to the Riverwalk.

The tallest portion of the development would be the hotel, which has a tower that reaches just above 90 feet…

Bob Fischer, vice president of the Naperville Area Homeowners Confederation, said the plans will “canyonize Water Street.”

“Allowing this kind of height and density along the Riverwalk will forever diminish it as the crown jewel of our downtown,” he said.

I think there are two big points about this that are not mentioned in the article:

1. One important feature of this mixed-use development is that it is south of the DuPage River. In other words, this development would firmly move the downtown across the river. This is no small matter: while there is development on the south side, it is primarily smaller and single-family home. Naperville’s downtown is popular (see the parking issues) but it is not clear that a majority of Naperville residents want the downtown to expand into more residential areas.

2. This development speaks to a broader issue: is Naperville ready for denser development? While the community added about 100,000 people between 1980 and 2008 as it expanded primarily to the south and west, there is really no open land left in the community. Thus, to grow, the city must approve denser development. The downtown is the logical place to start: it is near a train station, it has a number of restaurants and stores, and seems to be quite popular. Yet, projects like this could push Naperville into a new era of mixed-use and denser development as opposed to the primarily single-family home development that characterized the post-war era.

I’ll be tracking what happens with this proposal as both of the issues I cited above are likely to generate a lot of public discussion and comment. This could be a turning point in Naperville’s history: should the downtown expand in a big way and should the city pursue denser development in desirable locations?

UPDATE: I wouldn’t be surprised if the project is approved but the height is limited to something like fifty or sixty feet (five or six stories). Ninety feet would be quite high for downtown Naperville though approving that height could indicate some willingness to to pursue taller projects in the future.

Encouraging sprawl or downtown growth

A recent Canadian conference brought together scholars and practitioners interested in strengthening downtowns. Several of the participants made comments regarding the relationship between a city downtown and the suburbs:

By themselves, speakers warned, studios, galleries and quaint little bistros won’t solve the problems of troubled downtowns. Real solutions will have to overcome public policies that favour urban sprawl and punish core businesses with excessive parking requirements.

Consultant Pamela Blais pointed an accusing finger at municipal development charges that she argues favour suburban “McMansions” over turning downtown buildings into condos.

As one example, she pointed to one Ontario municipality that collects lot levies of $31,000 per parcel regardless of size — that means a house with a 30-foot frontage actually pays more toward the cost of water and sewer mains and parks than a bigger property.

Michael Manville, of Cornell University’s city and regional planning department, argued minimum parking requirements in city centres actually harm development by driving buildings farther apart.

“Most parking policies turn downtown into a sorry imitation of a mall,” he said. “We have to stop this quiet process of turning downtowns into suburbs one parking lot at a time.”

He argued for maximum parking requirements, rather than minimums, a policy he said will make downtown living attractive to people whose lives aren’t centred on their cars.

There are a lot of moving pieces here including big cultural forces favoring suburbs over denser environments (though perhaps not with younger generations). For planners in individual communities, it can be difficult to counter all of this at once.

At the same time, this is not a new issue. Urban (and suburban) downtowns really started to face these issues in the 1950s with the advent of the strip mall and shopping mall. Some of these same issues are reflected in the comments above: what to do about parking? How can a downtown compete against a mall where there are a number of interesting stores within a climate-controlled space? Other communities may not be completely on-board with promoting condos over single-family homes, particularly when condos can be tied to higher densities and bigger buildings which might clash with a community’s character.

One thing I have wondered before: is it always worthwhile for a community to try to revive a downtown? On one hand, a core is a valuable asset as it represents an opportunity to bring people together and to share a common history. Some newer communities have no real core or public space. On the other hand, downtowns can require a lot of revitalization and it can require fighting an uphill battle in some communities to put the kind of money and attention needed to get a downtown up and running again. It is one thing to present people with a thriving downtown that is attractive and exciting (see: downtown Naperville, which can lead to its own issues) but another to ask a lot of people to undergo a 5 to 20 year project to really transform a downtown. Frankly, some people don’t care about having a downtown and see it as a relic of the past – why not just build the newer versions of downtowns: lifestyle centers?

Here seems to be the primary strategies for downtown revitalization these days:

1. Promote mixed-use development, preferably buildings with retail on the first floor and then condos or offices above. This ensures social spaces and residents to use them.

2. Take advantage of transportation advantages such as mass transit. If you can increase density around important rail or subway lines, you can attract more people.

3. Generally aim to attract two sets of residents: younger professionals and creative types (a la the creative class). These groups like the idea of denser, exciting areas and are more willing to try things out. If you need a third group, aim for downshifters and young retirees who are also looking for a new scene.