Using public art to promote diversity in Naperville

Naperville is more diverse today than in past decades, it has a history of promoting public art in its downtown and along the Riverwalk, and it was home in recent years to multiple incidents of racism. Put this all together and a recently formed group just completed a new art installation:

https://www.napervilleart.org/

In part, this is a response to a downtown mural commissioned in 2014 that featured little diversity.

Three thoughts:

  1. Using public art, an already accepted medium in downtown Naperville, to make a new statement seems like it could be effective. At the same time, having more art that promotes diversity in the community in more prominent locations also matters.
  2. How much room is there in downtown Naperville to do different kinds of art? At this point, there are a number of murals, statues, and sculptures. How varied could future works in these formats be and what new formats might be included? More artistic freedom and new aesthetics – downtown Naperville generally has a red brick, several story building look – could also contribute to a sense of diversity.
  3. The conversation about art gets at larger questions about race and ethnicity in Naperville. Although it is more diverse than in the past, is it welcoming to all people? Do all residents feel comfortable in the downtown and in other local institutions? How does the community tell its own history? What is the vision for the future?

Communities and character in one slide

In putting together material for the upcoming semester, I found myself summarizing my work on studying the character of particular suburbs. Here is the slide that explains the process:

CommunitiesCharacterSlide

A quick explanation of the (simplified) process depicted on the slide:

  1. Every community or neighborhood has characteristics and circumstances at its founding. These starting traits can prove influential down the road.
  2. Once started, the community continues through inertia. People live their lives.
  3. There are points in time – which I call “character moments” in a 2013 article – where the inertia of communities are disrupted. This often comes in the form of external forces that place pressure on a community. For example, my 2013 article looked at what happened when three suburbs felt suburbanization pressure in the Chicago region after World War II. This led to internal discussions in each suburb about how they wanted to respond and what they viewed as their future. One of the suburbs, Naperville, decided to lean into the growth: they annexed a lot of land, developed guidelines for growth, and experienced multiple decades of explosive growth (read more in my 2016 article on the difficulties explaining these changes in Naperville).
  4. Different decisions in communities will lead to different future paths.
  5. Then, the inertia, external forces, and internal discussions and decisions repeat as circumstances arise. These key decisions build on each other over time which leads communities to be different places and feel different. This is an iterative process and communities can change course.

The ways this plays out in unique communities can differ greatly even as the process looks similar.

(To read more of what helped me think about this starting in graduate school as I looked to enact my interests in urban sociology and the sociology of culture, see this 2000 article titled “History Repeats Itself, But How? City Character, Urban Tradition, and the Accomplishment of Place.”)

Naperville named best place in the US to raise a family

Niche’s 2020 rankings put Naperville at the top of the list of best places to raise a family. Here is how they rated the large suburb:

NicheNapervilleJul2020

This is not an unusual plaudit for Naperville; a variety of publications have rated Naperville highly over the last two decades (previous posts here, here, and here). The community is wealthy, has a lot of amenities, and grew tremendously in the last few decades of the twentieth century.

Still, it is interesting to see what Niche says is better or worse about Naperville. Schools excellent. Housing good – not the cheapest suburb in the Chicago area but Midwestern and Southern home values are cheaper compared to coastal locations. Lots of good things for families. Good nightlife. Good diversity (perhaps for suburbs but not so much among America’s bigger communities).  Crime and safety is the lowest – though still a B- – even as Naperville is one of the safest big communities in the country!

Across rankings of communities, Naperville tends to do well. Whether it can maintain this reputation remains to be seen as city leaders and residents consider possible changes in future decades to a suburb that has little land remaining for single-family homes or low-density housing.

Naperville considering affordable housing – but primarily for current residents?

Naperville will soon discuss recommendations from a consultant regarding affordable housing. Several of the suggestions point to at least some of the affordable housing serving current residents:

low angle photo of balconies

Photo by Jovydas Pinkevicius on Pexels.com

Commissioners say the ideas are designed to help the city meet a state mandate on affordable housing and provide more places where seniors, young professionals and others who can’t afford many of the houses in Naperville can live…

Establish a rehabilitation loan fund to help low-income senior homeowners make repairs so they can age in place.

Establish a housing trust fund to help veterans, seniors, populations with special housing needs and first responders (including nurses, police officers and firefighters) purchase a home…

These ideas and others are listed in the report from SB Friedman, which found that roughly 22% of homeowners and 44% of renters in Naperville are spending more than 30% of their income on housing, making them “cost-burdened.” Many of these households are low-income, the report found, saying “there appears to be a considerable need for both owner- and renter-occupied affordable housing and income-restricted housing throughout the city to meet current residents’ needs.”

One way for wealthier suburbs to address affordable housing is to look for solutions for some of the populations mentioned above: seniors who are retired and are downsizing or having a hard time affording local housing on a restricted income; young professionals who are just out of school and looking to establish their career; and local workers who are seen as essential to the community such as teachers, fire fighters, and police officers. These are all groups that a wealthier suburb would want to keep as older residents should be able to age in place, attracting young professionals is important for keeping a strong tax base and having more young families in the community, and having certain occupations near their jobs and involved in the community is viewed as a plus.

At the same time, it is not clear that this gets at the full range of housing needs in the Naperville area, Chicago region, or the United States. There are lots of people who would benefit from cheaper housing costs yet the issue of affordable housing in many places is also connected to race and class. As noted in this article, housing is a social justice issue. Is Naperville addressing social justice issues if it is providing housing for the populations discussed above? Or, would providing housing for those with lower-wage jobs make more sense? Or, could cheaper housing provide opportunities for some future residents to experience upward economic mobility in a community with a lot to offer?

There is still much that could happen in these discussions. Naperville has a lot to offer to residents and it is a well-off and high-status community. What comes out of these conversations could help determine what the population of Naperville looks like in the coming years.

 

When protests make it to the wealthier suburbs, this means…

With protests spreading across the United States, including wealthy suburbs like Naperville, Illinois and Dunwoody, Georgia, this could hint at several forces at play:

NapervilleCorner

-Americans dislike or disapprove of blatant injustice. (Whether that extends to making significant changes or sacrifices is another story. The suburbs are built in part on race and exclusion.)

-The population composition of suburbs has changed in recent decades. As William Frey of Brookings Institution details in Diversity Explosion, minority populations have grown across suburbs.

-The image of primarily conservative voters in wealthy suburbs may not be as valid as it was in the past. The outcome of the 2020 election depends in part on suburban voters with suburbanites closer to big cities leaning toward Democrats and suburbanites on the metropolitan edges leaning toward Republicans. And appealing to suburban women are important for candidates.

-Certain upscale suburban locations have become important sites for attracting attention because of their status. For example, Occupy Naperville occurred in 2012 and Naperville attracts other protestors as the largest community in DuPage County, its walkable downtown with lively stores, restaurants, and recreational options, and its status.

 

Changed suburban spending because of COVID-19, Naperville edition

While most public attention with COVID-19 has focused on big cities and countries, numerous suburbs will deal with the effects of the pandemic as well. Here is how Naperville, a large and well-off suburb, is planning to tackle a budget gap:

The city of Naperville is shaving nearly $25 million off its 2020 budget in the wake of the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic…

City Manager Doug Krieger said some of the projects were selected to be postponed because they’re considered “nice-to-haves” and aren’t expected to cost significantly more to be completed in future years. One major project, a $2.6 million plan to improve downtown streetscapes, was included on the list for deferment because “the downtown merchants did not want to proceed” with it in light of the pandemic, he said.

The moves will help the city offset anticipated declines in revenue sources — such as sales tax, food and beverage tax and motor fuel tax — as residents and businesses continue to follow the stay-at-home order…

Other work that will not take place this year includes $9 million in water meter-reading technology upgrades, a $7 million road widening project on North Aurora Road and $1.1 million of work toward a park at 430 S. Washington St. to be built in conjunction with North Central College, as well as smaller projects such as LED lighting conversion, tree planting, electric vehicle charging stations, flooring replacements and conference room IT and electric upgrades.

Suburbs and other municipalities can generate tax revenue through several sources (as noted above). Property taxes are affected by property values, which appear at this point appear to be holding firm during COVID-19. Sales taxes are generated by local businesses; this will certainly be down in communities (though the decline of retailers was already an issue). Food and beverage taxes will be down. And the number of people buying gasoline – feeding into the motor fuel tax – is down (and projections for the state’s funding through this suggest a big dip). In Illinois, we are near a third month of reduced business and social activity and this will make a big dent in municipal finances.

At the same time, based on the descriptions here, it sounds like an average resident of Naperville would not even notice that these improvements are not addressed this year. Of course, it could create a backlog for future years – pushing projects down the road means other planned projects might be delayed later – but the focus is on helping to address the current issues.

Naperville may be an unusual case compared to many other suburbs. It is a big community with a lot of successful businesses. The local government prides itself on being well-run and stable. It is not clear how long Naperville could continue to work through budget shortfalls but it is likely better prepared for this than many places.

This means that many municipalities could be facing tough questions in the months ahead about local projects and local funding. If the federal government and states are struggling with missed revenues, this will certainly affect municipalities who have to address local budget issues.

The millions in tax incentives Naperville has offered to keep businesses

According to the Daily Herald, Costco has requested $5.5 million in tax rebates from Naperville in order to open a second store on the site of a former Kmart. This might fi with the incentives Naperville has offered to businesses since 2008:

Marriott

Total incentive offered: $10 million

Total incentive paid: $2,865,000 in hotel/motel tax and sales tax rebates

Expiration: When total is met or 20 years after agreement started in 2012

Hotel Arista/CityGate Centre

Total incentive offered: $7.5 million

Total incentive paid: $2,545,000 in hotel/motel tax and sales tax rebates

Expiration: When total is met or 20 years after agreement started in 2008

Hotel Indigo/Water Street District

Total incentive offered: $7.5 million

Total incentive paid: $965,000 in hotel/motel tax and sales tax rebates

Expiration: When total is met or 20 years after agreement started in 2018

Embassy Suites

Total incentive offered: $7.4 million

Total incentive paid: $1,457,000 in hotel/motel tax and sales tax rebates

Expiration: When total is met or 20 years after agreement started in 2015

Main Street Promenade

Total incentive offered: $1.4 million

Total incentive paid: $306,000 in sales tax rebates

Expiration: When total is met or 25 years after agreement started in 2013

There are a couple of ways to look at this. Perhaps this is just the cost of doing business these days. Big businesses can ask for tax breaks or incentives, plenty of places are willing to offer them, and everyone can still think that they win. For some companies and some communities, this money might just be a small drop in the budget.

On the other hand, it is striking that Naperville has to play this game. This is not a desperate suburb looking for jobs or a turnaround. This a large, wealthy suburb with a lot of accolades. And yet, to get a Costco which would provide tax monies plus fill an annoying vacancy on a stretch the city would like to improve, the city is being asked to provide millions of dollars in breaks to make it worthwhile for Costco. And if Naperville does not pony up, do they just locate in a nearby suburb?

Looking at the list of businesses for which Naperville has provided incentives, four of them involve hotels and a few involved newer developments. Competition is tight in a number of sectors, particularly among retailers and filling suburban vacancies. Again, maybe this is what it takes to keep businesses happy, jobs in town, and some tax money flowing.

Naperville will decide on this soon.

UPDATE 2/19/20: Naperville approved the deal and one leader spoke of the move as providing a catalyst to revive the Ogden Avenue corridor.

Developing suburban tourist destinations along major highways

The suburb of Naperville is looking to develop entertainment and tourist destinations on undeveloped land in the northwest corner of the community:

In the works at the two properties both using the CityGate name are an apartment building with a rooftop event center on the east side of Route 59, along with an arena for hockey games, concerts and conventions; and on the west side, a brewery or winery with a restaurant and hotel, as well as residences and offices — all designed with public art as a focal point.

What CityGate as a whole aims to do, developers and city leaders say, is become a true entertainment destination, giving visitors and residents reasons to come, places to stay — even places to live…

Still, there is optimism for CityGate plans, which eventually could include a band shell, a pedestrian bridge over Route 59 and a connection to the Illinois Prairie Path.

“From what we’ve been able to gather, Naperville is gaining a number of people visiting because of tourist attractions outside of Naperville,” Halikias said. “We’re looking at it and saying, ‘You know what? We should have the tourist attractions in Naperville.'”

And all right off the interchange of Route 59 and I-88. Three thoughts in response:

1. Even though many Americans likely do not think “suburb” when they hear about tourism, more suburbs are pitching themselves as cultural or entertainment centers. Tourism can help bring in money from visitors, which helps grow the local tax base without further burdening local residents or property owners. Additionally, the right kind of tourism can be viewed as family-friendly, a vibe many suburbs would like to cultivate.

2. One of the draws of Naperville is its vibrant downtown. Would an entertainment center on the edge of the city compete with the downtown and its restaurants, stores, and other amenities? This connects to a broader question: how many entertainment centers can thrive in the suburbs of the same region, let alone within the same community?

3. The development is said to include apartments, nearly 300 of them. While this helps provide a base for the new amenities nearby, it does not completely alleviate a problem of this development: how accessible is it to nearby residences or communities and how car dependent will the new place be? Even with access to the Prairie Path, the majority of visitors will need to come by car. Two sides of the property will be bordered by very busy roads. The majority of people will drive, park, and leave. This is a very different kind of center than Naperville’s downtown – which can be said to help contribute to Naperville’s small town charm – because of transportation. Perhaps the development will have a full range of options that can keep people there for hours. But, creating a coherent space with its own feelings and around-the-clock vibe could be hard to develop.

Naperville gaining a reputation for racist incidents?

A recent controversy involving race at a Naperville Buffalo Wild Wings leads to considering evidence for and against the idea that Naperville has more racism than other suburbs:

The city, which census figures show is nearly three-quarters white, has also faced concerns about diversity and inclusion. After Naperville resident and state Rep. Anne Stava-Murray said the city had a legacy of white supremacist policies, the city convened a public Naperville Neighbors United discussion, where organizers said the city had work to do in areas like building minority representation among city leaders

Kevin Mumford, a University of Illinois professor who has studied race relations, said racism could be on an upswing in suburbs such as Naperville because of events in Chicago and nationally. African-Americans in high-profile positions in Chicago, such as the new mayor and leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union who were highly visible during the recent teachers strike, can cause “status anxiety” among white residents across income levels. That can be exacerbated by Trump supporters who feel a strong anti-Trump sentiment in Illinois, he said…

“I know about Naperville,” tweeted pop singer Richard Marx, who grew up in north suburban Highland Park. “And, disgusting as this is, it’s not terribly surprising.”…

Naperville has a problem with racism, but it’s no worse than in any neighboring suburb, Sullivan said. Instead, she suggested Naperville residents are more willing to confront it. Residents shared the video of the gas station confrontation and the essay from the former Naperville resident because they wanted to talk about them, she said.

The two sides presented in the article put it this way: is Naperville more racist than other suburban communities or does it just get more attention because of its status and the willingness of community members to talk about the issue? Figuring that out would require deeper knowledge of how race and ethnicity has played out in Naperville as well as insights into how race and ethnicity is treated across a variety of American suburbs, including suburbs similar in characteristics to Naperville.

No suburb wants this reputation, particularly one with lots of accolades, wealth, and a vibrant downtown. And Naperville leaders would likely point to some significant demographic changes in the community in recent decades plus efforts to encourage interaction between groups in the community as well as with local government. At the same time, communities can acquire a status or reputation through repeated events. Similarly, what leaders say is happening in a community does not always match day-to-day realities of what residents and visitors experience.

(UPDATE 11/6/19 at 10:48 AM: The character of suburban communities can change through different decisions and reactions to both internal and external social forces. In recent years, Naperville has become home to political protests, a change that would have been difficult to forecast for a traditionally conservative community.)

Marijuana sales viewed as hurting family-friendly suburbs, Naperville edition

Tuesday night the Naperville City Council voted against allowing marijuana dispensaries to locate within the suburb:

Naperville City Council members voted 6-3 Tuesday to opt out of recreational marijuana sales within city limits, and directed staff to come back with information on a potential referendum question for council consideration.

The decision to opt out of recreational pot sales came several hours after hundreds of people began packing the Naperville City Council chambers as residents and non-residents waited their turn to comment on the issue of whether to allow the retail sale of pot. The discussion on marijuana sales brought 238 people to sign up for public comment on the topic — a vast majority speaking in favor of opting out while wearing white and orange “opt out” shirts.

Over the past couple weeks, the group was organized to rally and lobby city council members to keep recreational cannabis dispensaries out of Naperville. At the same time, residents in support of retail marijuana sales have circulated a survey on the issue.

People who asked city council to opt out Tuesday night are concerned recreational pot dispensaries would lead to increased availability to children and would hurt the “family friendly” brand of Naperville.

This is not a surprise. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the likelihood that wealthier suburbs would not want to sully their brand by allowing marijuana sales. A community like Naperville has a reputation to protect: it is large, wealthy, has a vibrant downtown, highly-rated school districts, and acres upon acres of single-family homes. While marijuana sales may do little to affect behavior in a community of over 140,000 residents, this is about an image. Not too long ago, the vibrant downtown presented a similar issue: alcohol-related incidents were getting out of hand and the city responded.

At the same time, Naperville could change its mind later. Perhaps the dispensaries will not cause issue in similar communities. Perhaps the city will want the extra sales tax revenue. Perhaps the group that turned up in large numbers in front of the City Council to opt out will fade away and advocates will win the day. But, at least for now, Naperville wants to – and to be honest, does not need to look for quick money or be on the leading edge of this – protect its brand.

More broadly, how long until marijuana sales and use becomes normal fare in the American suburbs? For decades, some claimed the suburbs makes people conservative: they want to protect their families and homes. However, the political tides of suburbia have turned (including in DuPage County as well as in Naperville) and attitudes toward marijuana and other drugs have changed.