Why suburban governments should consider merging

While Lisle, Naperville, Warrenville, and Woodridge appeared to have little interest in merging, the long saga does raise a possibility: should more suburban governments consider merging?

The primary reason not to is that many suburbs and their local officials want to maintain control over what happens in their community and near their homes. Larger communities may make decisions for the good of the larger community that do not necessarily benefit certain members of the community. A smaller government provides closer oversight as the individual votes of residents count more.

A second reason for not merging is that suburbs often see themselves as distinct communities. Even though an outsider might see it all as one amorphous blob of suburbanism, many suburbs have long histories and distinct characters. In this particular case, these suburbs may define themselves partly as not Naperville: we are still a small community with a distinct feel.

On the other side, there may be multiple reasons to merge: financial economies of scale through combining particular city services (for example, having one police department rather than four), increased visibility and status with a larger size (controlling more land as well as having a larger population), broadening a tax base, and some communities may have mutual interests due to similar demographics, locations, or like-minded leaders. Imagine an even larger Naperville that controls a lot of land along major highways (I-88 and I-355), has a diverse tax base (particularly due to a lot of office jobs), thas efficient city services over a broad area, and is clearly the largest suburb of Chicago (Aurora currently holds that distinction). In the long run, is it feasible to keep so many suburban governments going when budgets are ever tighter? Is it worth protecting local control and distinct characters at a higher cost?

The only way I could see suburbs seriously consider merging would involve difficult financial times looming on the horizon. Even then, many suburbs may not want to take on the communities that have a weaker financial standing or a lower status.

The unclear plot to merge Lisle, Naperville, Warrenville, and Woodridge

The Daily Herald reveals details behind an odd 2017 suburban annexation push but there are still numerous unanswered questions:

Court records released this week in Will County show Dave Nelson, a former candidate for Lisle village clerk who ran on a slate with the current mayor and two trustees, was the key proponent of a plan to place referendum questions concerning the proposed mergers on spring 2017 ballots.

Court records show Nelson was working on behalf of his minor child.

The revelation is sparking questions about whether Nelson’s political allies were involved in the merger push, which long was shrouded in mystery. Some village board members also are raising questions about why some of Nelson’s allies who were elected to village posts are considering replacing the village’s legal counsel, suggesting it may be retribution for the firm’s work in uncovering Nelson’s secret…

The courts rejected the petitions in Warrenville and Woodridge because they didn’t have enough signatures and the petitions in Lisle because of procedural problems.

While we now know who started the efforts to annex these communities, there are still more questions:

  1. The article says “Nelson was working on behalf of his minor child.” Was this a school project? Something the minor child really wanted to see happen? Does it have anything to do at all with school districts?
  2. There are some issues with the Lisle local elections and the particular slate of candidates known as “Prosperity for Lisle.” In this article, they deny knowledge of what one of their candidates – Nelson – was doing. Did anyone in Lisle know what was going on?
  3. Was there any additional interaction with the other communities beyond Lisle? Nelson had earlier admitted to talking to the Naperville mayor. Was anyone else in on this?

There is more to uncover.

Tomorrow, I will discuss why suburban governments should consider merging and the reasons why it does not often happen, let alone even reach the stage of a public discussion.

Successful Naperville also linked to stressed out teenagers

Naperville is not the only wealthy suburb to experience issues related to anxiety. Here is how one expert describes how community success can be related to worries:

Michelle Rusk, former president of the American Association of Suicidology, said when it comes to community pressure placed on teens to succeed and families to maintain the idealized “white picket fence” life, little has changed since she grew up in Naperville in the 1970s and ’80s…

Experts who work with Naperville students say they are treating more children experiencing signs of distress at a younger age…

Growing up in Naperville, Rusk, formerly known as Michelle Linn-Gust, said she heard stories of big houses with empty rooms because the owners couldn’t afford to furnish them or men who left their wives because they felt they weren’t making enough money.

People move to Naperville because it’s recognized as a great place to raise a family, but maintaining that image is challenging enough for adults let alone kids, she said.

In the 1990s, historian Michael Ebner argued Naperville was a “technoburb” – a suburb with a high number of high-tech and white-collar jobs – and this was accompanied by the development of high-performing schools. Naperville was not always like this; before the 1960s, Naperville was just a small town surrounded by farms.

But, is there a way to get out of this spiral of wealth, success, and anxiety and suicides? As Rusk noted above, Naperville is attractive in part because of its high-achieving environment. In communities like this with residents ranging from the middle-class to upper-class, families want only the best for their kids. Would residents and others be willing to give up some of the success to have better lives?

Almost all suburban residents’ concerns about redevelopment expressed in one meeting

Naperville is pursuing a redevelopment project just south of the downtown train station and a recent public input meeting provided almost all the typical suburban concerns about redevelopment:

Land use and traffic are emerging as top concerns about redevelopment plans for 5th Avenue near the Naperville Metra station.

But close behind are issues of stormwater, green space, pedestrian access, the commuter experience and parking…

Promises to take time understanding and synthesizing resident wants and concerns seemed to only somewhat satisfy residents at Ryan Companies’ fourth group input session Friday afternoon. Some who attended said they want very little to be built on the land, which they see as a solution to flooding, traffic congestion and a lack of nearby park space.

“I don’t want high density,” neighbor Dana Aldrich said. “Our schools are already crowded.”

These are all common concerns. Too much traffic. Water issues. Parking. A desire for more green space. The city or developer not taking the concerns of residents seriously. Not increasing the burden on local services (and presumably property taxes), particularly schools. The only thing missing? The suggestion that property taxes will be negatively affected. Given this particular location and wealthy community, it is unlikely the proposed project would reduce property values – but realities do not always stop suburban residents from raising this specter.

It is also interesting to consider how suburban governments can proceed if residents tend to raise the same concerns almost regardless of the project. Something is likely to be done with this land since a good argument could be made that it is not serving the community as well as it might. (Redevelopment can incur new costs but it can also generate new tax revenues.) Development can be tweaked to try to assuage concerns. However, at some point, community leaders may just decide to override residents’ concerns. Perhaps the concerns are limited to a small number of vocal residents. Perhaps they would argue that as leaders they have the greater good of the community in mind.

Naperville cannot easily rebrand and revive East Ogden Avenue

Naperville is considering ways to improve East Ogden Avenue on the suburb’s northwest side:

The city, along with the Naperville Development Partnership and the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce, sponsored an open house Tuesday to gather opinions on a streetscape renovation plan — and how to pay for it — from property owners, business owners and nearby residents.

Those who stopped by Tuesday morning said they liked elements of the proposed facelift for the stretch of Ogden between Washington Street and Naperville’s eastern border east of Naper Boulevard, but they worried the cost could prevent it from happening…

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…

Each [intersection] could receive some sort of sign for “Uptown Naperville,” some with large silver letters spelling out “NAPERVILLE” or referring to the city with a tall “N.”

As usual, there are questions about how to pay the $5 million the plan requires. That is one issue.

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.

An alternative approach might be this. Take one of the busier intersections, like the northeast corner of Washington and Ogden. There is a busy strip mall there with a Jewel grocery store and a Starbucks in the outlot. Why not build a mixed-use residential development just to the north or east. Make this small area a bit of a destination. Increase foot traffic (and who right now really wants to walk or bike along Ogden). Provide more anchors to a transient stretch. If this is successful, keep the idea moving to the east. This is a much longer project and it may not be possible to always put in attractive mixed-use buildings. Yet, there is demand for residential units in Naperville and units along Ogden are not that far from downtown or the downtown Metra station for those interested in commuting.

Not so fast: turning suburbs into cities

One way to revive America’s cities may be to adapt to increasing densities in Americans suburbs:

But this analysis also misses something important. These trends don’t just represent people’s moving decisions — they also represent changes in the places themselves. If enough people move to a low-density area, it becomes a high-density area.

People are pouring into Dallas and San Diego. So unless those cities continue to sprawl ever farther out across the countryside, the new arrivals will increase density. People will want to live close to their jobs instead of enduring hour-long commutes. Apartment blocks will spring up where once-empty fields or single-family homes stood. Today’s fast-growing suburb is tomorrow’s urban area.

In other words, the great urban revival might not be ending, it might just be relocating. Instead of piling into existing cores, Americans might simply be creating new ones across the country. And if each of these new cities creates the productivity advantages enjoyed by places like San Francisco and New York City, this could be a good thing for the economy.

This is an intriguing concept: some suburbs, because of their popularity, willingness to build taller structures, and population size, might become like cities. This has already happened to some degree in a number of suburbs across the country.

Yet, just because a location has a certain number of people or reaches certain population densities does not necessarily mean that it feels or operates like a city. We also already have some denser urban areas – see the Los Angeles suburbs which are pretty dense compared to many metropolitan areas – but that does not automatically make them cities or urban. What is required? Most American cities have: a core or multiple cores that are multi-use and include a good number of businesses or offices; a walkability that extends for a good distance (beyond just a suburban downtown or large shopping center) and mass transit options to extend beyond the core(s) – in other words, good options beyond operating a car; a vibrancy and diversity that could range from thriving economic activity to restaurants and bars to filled public spaces; and an identity among residents and others that the area is a city.

Imagine Naperville, Illinois really wanted to become a city. It starts approving dense residential and commercial projects throughout the community. (Just to note: the local government has rejected these in the past.) The population ticks upward past 200,000 or even 300,000. There are still some pockets of single-family homes and vestiges of small-town life. How long would it take for the conditions of a city as discussed above arise? How would the community adapt to having so many businesses along I-88 rather than downtown? Would this limit the number of people who ride into Chicago on the Metra each day? (Naperville right now has the busiest stops in the whole system.) How would a city atmosphere develop? This all would take significant time and effort and perhaps decades before Naperville would be considered from both the inside and outside a city.

Historical irony: Naperville magazine suggests “discover Hinsdale”

Naperville’s size, wealth, accolades, and amenities make it a suburban behemoth outside of Chicago. Yet, when Naperville Magazine features in its current issue the story titled “Discover Hinsdale” (see the cover image below), it is a reversal of history regarding which community was more desirable.


Naperville was founded first in the early 1830s though Hinsdale was not far behind (and the community was originally known as Brush Hill and then Fullersburg). The two communities share a rail line in and out of Chicago, originally the Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy, which opened in the mid-1860s. While the two communities were similar in size until the postwar era, Hinsdale was the wealthier town. It had a hospital. It attracted executives as residents. It was at the eastern edge of DuPage County and just 15 miles from downtown Chicago. Naperville, in contrast, was seen more of a farm community, there wasn’t much development between it and Aurora (and little at all to the south or southwest), and it had lost some luster after losing the county seat to Wheaton in 1867.

Long-time Naperville resident and real estate agent described the relationship between the two suburbs in Is it Eden? Is it Camelot? It is Paradise? Better yet…It’s Naperville.

I discovered an overlooked “fact of life” one Saturday afternoon when a well-dressed, house-hunting couple entered our office. Both were quite disappointed to learn that our town had no tree-lined street full of gracious, period-type houses built in the 1920’s and 30’s, the likes of which they could find in some affluent suburbs east of us. They were also shocked to find we had so little “speculative” building and that our listings were generally of very old homes. The wife then made a biting comment that raised the hairs on my neck. She said, “Did you know that Naperville is rated a class ‘C’ town in some Hinsdale real estate offices?” “What in the world do you  mean!” I sputtered through clenched teeth. “Oh, don’t get made,” she replied, “Just in the area of ‘income per capita’.” “What in the world do you mean!” I sputtered through clenched teeth. “Oh, don’t get made,” she replied, “Just in the area of ‘income per capita’.” Well, Hal, I admit that I was truly deflated. Deflated because, even though it seemed such a minuscule area to me in light of all of Naperville’s ENDURING values, it was a fact of life, and there would be more people of this bent for us to deal with in the future. Hinsdale today is probably still the “class” community of the western suburbs. Time, effort and planning have earned it its reputation. Housing costs in Hinsdale are, on average, 30% higher than in Naperville. However, by now we must have about caught up in “income per capita”. I would (secretly) like to challenge Hinsdale to a rating battle based on “percent of residents with advanced college degrees.” Maybe then I might be able to walk into a realty office in their town and square a long-remembered rebuke by saying, “Did you know that in Naperville, some real estate offices rate Hinsdale a Class ‘B’ community?” I wonder if they’d squirm a little, as I did?” (“Dear Hal” column, Aug 28, 1981, The Naperville Sun)

A later story:

For as long as I can recall, having a Hinsdale (Ill.) residence address had the same effect on others as did the car, wristwatch, or college on attended – it “made a statement.” Aesthetic Hinsdale, with a population of only 17,000, has the highest income per capita of any community in DuPage County… ((“Dear Hal” column, May 17, 1981, The Naperville Sun)

The Naperville Magazine piece is similar to many you can find in suburban magazines. Here is the primary text that then leads to a list of attractions:

Just about halfway between Naperville and Chicago you’ll find the village of Hinsdale, known for its stop-and-stare-worthy homes along tree-shaded streets and a cute, compact downtown lined with shops and restaurants. Though the abundance of women’s clothing boutiques and pampering salons make it a popular destination for a ladies’ day out—no question—there’s a little bit of something for everyone in Hinsdale.

Hinsdale is now the quaint and wealthy suburb to visit. There are upscale restaurants and shops to explore as well as a few historical sites. The community is still wealthy and on average has higher incomes and housing values than Naperville. The teardown phenomenon seems to have begun earlier in Hinsdale in the 1980s before spreading to Naperville (according to several late-1980s columns by Herb Matter). Local celebrities seem to live more in Hinsdale than Naperville.

Yet, Naperville is the more vibrant place. It is clearly bigger. The downtown is more lively. Hinsdale is older money, Naperville more emblematic of the late-twentieth boom among the white-collar and educated.