Limiting landmarked buildings in a suburb with a history of growth

Naperville, Illinois experienced explosive suburban growth after 1960. With demand still high for development in Naperville, evidenced by hundreds of teardowns and rising rent prices, the city council does not appear to have much appetite for landmarking buildings:

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On the heels of the Naperville City Council’s decision to deny landmark status to the downtown Kroehler YMCA facility, officials are proposing changes to the city’s landmarking procedures.

The changes, which need city council approval, are intended to reduce the impact on property owners and make it more difficult for applicants to achieve landmark status for structures.

The idea of forcing landmark status on property owners emerged as a key issue in February when the city council voted 8-1 to reject the request by Naperville Preservation to landmark the Kroehler YMCA against the owners’ wishes. The vote freed the owners to demolish and sell the site.

After numerous speakers at last week’s city council meeting debated the idea of creating more-stringent landmarking regulations, and based on recommendations by Councilman Ian Holzhauer, city staff was directed to return with an ordinance preventing individual citizens from applying for landmark status.

For at least several decades, historic preservationists in communities across the United States have argued that older buildings are worth preserving. Acquiring landmark status is a way to help ensure the structure retains its original form even as neighborhoods and streetscapes change.

It is less clear how well historic preservationist arguments work in suburbs where communities can be used to growth and the rights of individual property owners can reign supreme. As suggested above, landmark status can be seen as an impediment to property owners who can profit from changing or selling a property. Why save an older structure when there is money to be made and progress to be pursued?

If this logic wins out in suburban communities, how many older buildings will remain and in what format? It is one thing to save older buildings and move them or recreate them in a historical museum setting. It is another to preserve important older structures that mark important community locations even as communities continue to change.

The billions in sales generated in a big suburban edge city

Joel Garreau defined an edge city as a suburban place with lots of office and retail space. Just how much retail activity takes place? A recent report found the edge city of Naperville, Illinois generated billions in sales in 2021:

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Naperville continues to reign as the top suburb in retail sales for the fifth year in a row, a recent report shows.

The city in 2021 recorded sales of $4.3 billion, $540 million more than No. 2 Schaumburg, according to the annual report from Chicago real estate and retail consultants Melaniphy & Associates…

For Naperville, 2021 restaurant and bar sales climbed to a record $443 million, up 34% from 2020′s pandemic plummet to $330 million after hitting $431 million in 2019…

By far the largest contributor to retail sales in Naperville is under the automobile dealership and gasoline category.

In 2021, Naperville figures rose by 33% over the previous year to $1.7 billion, which was the highest percentage increase throughout the Chicago metropolitan area, according to the report.

Some of the lead for Naperville could be tied to their large population and land area. Many suburban communities are not this big. For example, Schaumburg has roughly a little more than half the population of Naperville and about half of the land area.

But, I am more interested in the absolute figures. One suburb had over $4 billion in sales. This is a lot of money in one community. And hundreds of millions were spent in numerous categories, including restaurants, groceries, cars, and lumber, hardware, and building supplies.

Naperville has several areas that help generate these sales. In northeast Naperville, Ogden Avenue and Diehl Road (and adjacent areas) have retailers, restaurants, automobile related businesses, and more. Downtown Naperville is a vibrant food and retail scene. The Naperville area adjacent and near the Fox Valley Mall has a lot of activity. Business activity in southwest Naperville is a more recent addition.

In short, Naperville is not just a bedroom suburb with a high quality of life: it is full of retail activity even as it contains thousands of homes and dozens of subdivisions.

New “Unvarnished” exhibit on Naperville’s exclusionary past

A new project from Naper Settlement shows how Naperville – and several other communities – excluded people for decades:

https://www.unvarnishedhistory.org/local-spotlights/naperville-illinois/

For more than 80 years, Naperville was a sundown town. After working in a household, farm or factory during the day, people of color had to be gone from Naperville by sundown…

A historical look at how diversity in the city and five other U.S. towns grew despite decades historic discriminatory practices and segregation is featured in a free online exhibit spearheaded by Naper Settlement and the Historical Society of Naperville.

“Unvarnished: Housing Discrimination in the Northern and Western United States,” found at UnvarnishedHistory.org, was developed through a $750,000 Institute of Museum and Library Services Museum Leadership grant. The Naperville historical museum and five other museums and cultural organizations collaborated from 2017 to 2022 to research and present their community’s history of exclusion…

“It is our hope that this project will act as a model and inspire other communities to research, share and reflect upon their own history. It is through this process that we are able to engage with the totality of history to better understand today and guide our decision-making for the future,” she said.

In doing research on Naperville and two other nearby suburbs, I had uncovered some of what is detailed in this exhibit. However, the local histories of the community rarely addressed any of this. Instead, they focused on the positive moments for white residents, typically connected to growth, progress, and notable members of the community.

Such an exhibit suggests a willingness for Naperville and other communities to better grapple with pasts built on privileging some and keeping others out. The history of many American suburbs include exclusion by race, ethnicity, and social class. This could happen through explicit regulations and ordinances, through regular practices, or through policies and actions not explicitly about race, ethnicity, or class but with clear outcomes for different groups.

As noted in the last paragraph above, hopefully these efforts do not end with past history but also help communities consider current and future patterns. For example, decisions about development – like what kind of housing is approved – influence who can live in a community.

Naperville’s status and Farley’s “Van Down by the River” performance inspired by Naperville bridge over the DuPage River

According to Naperville native Bob Odenkirk, he was inspired by his hometown when writing Chris Farley’s famous SNL skit “Matt Foley: Van Down by the River.”

Q: Speaking of “SNL,” that famous sketch for Chris Farley you wrote, about him living in a van down by the river — were you writing with Naperville in mind?

A: There is the DuPage River, and when I was writing that I did picture the bridge in Naperville over the DuPage. It was a bridge for stoners when I was a kid. Stoner kids hung out there. So this guy parking his van by a river — yes, that was the image I had.

There are several bridges Odenkirk could be referring to. Could it be this bridge (in a picture from nearly a decade ago)? This is a little removed from the busier downtown area and the more manicured areas of the lively Riverwalk.

Naperville has a reputation as a wealthy and large suburb with a thriving downtown and numerous high-status jobs. Does the image of a guy living in a van down by the river fit this or kids smoking pot by the DuPage River? Probably not and the city in recent years was not interested in marijuana dispensaries.

I cannot imagine a statue of Matt Foley near the DuPage River in downtown Naperville among the suburb’s collection of public art...but perhaps Odenkirk could eventually make the cut?

New publication – More than 300 Teardowns Later: Patterns in Architecture and Location among Teardowns in Naperville, Illinois, 2008-2017

I recently published an article in the Journal of Urban Design (online first) analyzing several hundred teardowns in Naperville, Illinois. Here is the abstract (and several of the pictures I took for the study depicting recent teardowns):

Analyzing before and after images of 349 teardowns between 2008 and 2017 in the wealthy and sprawling suburb of Naperville, Illinois, shows patterns in aesthetic choices and their fit in older neighbourhoods. First, the teardowns are significantly larger and have different features including larger garages and more windows. Second, over 60% of the teardowns feature Victorian styling. Third, the teardowns are often next to other teardowns in desirable neighbourhoods near the suburb’s vibrant downtown. These visual findings show how teardowns that add to the housing stock often imitate common architectural styles yet exhibit disparate features compared to older neighbouring homes.

This project had several starting points.

First, I started studying the phenomenon of McMansions back in graduate school and eventually published a study looking at how the term was used in the New York Times and the Dallas Morning News. The idea of a McMansion has multiple dimensions – size, relative size, poor architecture and design, and a symbol for other issues including sprawl and conspicuous consumption – and the word can be used differently across locations.

Second, I started studying Naperville in graduate school as part of a larger project examining suburban growth and development. I published some of this research in two places: (1) examining consequential character moments in different suburbs, including Naperville, and (2) analyzing the surprising population growth in Naperville that helped take it from a small suburb to a thriving boomburb. Naperville is a unique suburban community with lots of teardown activity in recent decades.

Third, I am broadly interested in housing. This is particularly important for suburbs where owning and protecting single-family homes – and all that comes with it – are primary goals. Additionally, residential segregation based on housing is a powerful force in American society.

All three of these streams helped lead to this project. And there is a lot more that could be done in this area as teardowns affect numerous neighborhoods and communities in the United States.

McMansions and Beanie Babies

A new documentary suggests the Beanie Baby craze began among big houses in Naperville:

Photo by Kayley Dlugos on Pexels.co

The Gist: It all started with a few white ladies in Naperville, Illinois – because of course it did. In the mid-1990s in the culs-de-sac of the affluent suburban Midwest, where triple-wide driveways flank brick McMansions, Joni, Becky and Mary Beth decided they liked cute little hand-sized stuffies produced by modestly sized toy company Ty Inc., and wanted to collect them all. An inauspicious beginning, yes, but one that would find Ty founder, future billionaire and eventual criminal tax evader H. Ty Warner ignoring how Mary Beth helped stir nationwide consumer frenzies for his products, and suing her for copyright infringement. So this story has its heroes and villains, a couple who fall somewhere in-between, and a nation of millions who caused a subsequent consumer demand for plastic totes so they can shove their hundreds of worthless Beanie Babies beneath the basement steps. (The real winner here? Probably Rubbermaid.)

Based on this short snippet, I am thinking of several possible connections between McMansions and Beanie Babies:

  1. These homes offer lots of space for storing and displaying the toys. All those bonus rooms and square footage mean the owners can have hundreds, no, thousands, of Beanie Babies.
  2. The people who can afford McMansions can afford a lot of Beanie Babies.
  3. Related to #2, those who live in McMansions, homes often criticized for their architecture and design, want to own lots of toys that became a fad.
  4. Perhaps the simplest explanation: roughly 50% of Americans lived in the suburbs by the 1990s, most McMansions are in the suburbs, Naperville’s population was booming at this time, and Ty Warner is from the Chicago area…meaning all of these spaces happened to collide in this toy boom.

Rebuilding suburban homes months after experiencing a tornado

The damage from tornadoes can last for months. Here is some of the aftermath in Naperville roughly six months later:

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There may never be a full recovery for dozens of Naperville residents continuing to struggle in the wake of a devastating tornado that tore through sleepy neighborhoods shortly after 11 p.m. June 20, leaving one house destroyed and more than 200 damaged in an area just south of 75th Street…

Six months later, they and so many others continue to deal with slow-responding insurance companies, negligent contractors, supply-chain issues and a city government that’s never grappled with the long-term effects of devastation on this scale…

Some homeowners are simply choosing to sell for the value of the land. Others are dedicated to rebuilding no matter how long it takes…

City officials say they understand the frustration in the neighborhoods and acknowledge the difficulty in assessing resident needs. They’ve tried to expedite the permitting process — waiving fees is being considered if it directly benefits homeowners and not the insurance companies — and they suspended charging residents for utilities.

The feat of building suburban subdivisions can be impressive in its own right. When the mass construction of neighborhoods occurred regularly after World War Two, it represented a change to how housing was built.

Reconstructing suburban subdivisions might be a more difficult task. Rebuilding numerous homes and reconstructing daily lives amid normal suburban life is not easy. The advantage of building a whole subdivision at once is that all of the equipment, materials, and labor can be in place at the same time. When some homes are destroyed and damaged, it sounds like efforts are more scattered or focused on particular properties.

Since suburbs do experience tornadoes at least semi-regularly in the United States, is there a set of best practices communities and residents can follow? Putting homes and life back together after a calamity is never easy but perhaps there are clearer paths to resiliency.

Acknowledging that a building proposal from a religious group can lead to a “painful” process

Religious groups regularly propose changes for land and buildings and I have studied this both in the western suburbs of Chicago and the New York City region. After a City Council vote to approve changes to land owned by the Islamic Center of Naperville (see earlier posts on the unusual amount of attention this drew and approval by the planning and zoning commission), the mayor of Naperville acknowledged that it had been a difficult process:

A large crowd in the city council chamber erupted in applause when the vote was completed. Each council member and Chirico expressed gratitude for the work put in by all parties throughout the process that played out over nine months in the city’s planning and zoning commission with 500 speakers in 15 meetings.

“We all know it was painful,” Chirico said. “There were times where I was entertained. There were times where I was angry. There were times where I was throwing my shoe at the TV. Every emotion it seemed like it went through.”

Even as life will now continue with the different actors involved, acknowledging the difficult process is noteworthy. In my study of such proposals, the religious groups do not always reach the outcome they desire nor do communities and residents always get what they want. Here, describing the process as “painful” could refer to a number of things – the time it took, figuring out the particulars, working with all of the interested parties, etc. – and very involved may have attained exactly what they wanted at the beginning.

It is also worth noting that the same group and site may be up for conversation again in the future. In order to help the proposal succeed, the Islamic Center of Naperville agreed to submit future changes for the building and property for review:

The final step pushing the proposal over the finishing line was a concession by the Islamic Center to submit its third, fourth and fifth phase to additional city council review when the time comes. A group representing the nearby subdivisions of Ashwood Pointe, Pencross Knoll and Tall Grass agreed to accept the proposal with those conditions.

Will the process at that point be less painful? The group has made two proposals and both times has encountered numerous questions from neighbors and community members. Some of the particular actors involved in those two discussions may be gone but the underlying questions may not.

Design standards, paint, and appearances in a suburban downtown

A new business in downtown Naperville chose a different paint job compared to nearby establishments and this led to some discussion:

Members of the city’s planning and zoning commission gave a chilly reception to the freshly painted exterior at JoJo’s, a self-described “next generation diner” with milkshakes, milk and cookie flights and diner classics that’s scheduled to open this month at 5 Jackson Ave.

But because JoJo’s adhered to city codes regarding its main color choice and the amount of accent color it used, there’s not much the commission or the city can do except possibly ask JoJo’s to change the facade and create stricter guidelines for the future…

Behind white raised letters reading “JoJo’s Shake Bar” is a turquoise background stretching across the two-story building that looks like dripping ice cream extending down past the top of the second-floor windows.

Commission members said a uniform block of turquoise across the top would have been acceptable. They believe the dripping effect, however, isn’t appropriate for downtown Naperville…

The issue came up at the end of Wednesday’s meeting when Commissioner Anthony Losurdo said he saw the facade while driving by, labeling it a “sore thumb.” Stressing he wouldn’t have approved the look had it been subject to a vote, Losurdo said he has received complaints about the paint scheme from residents.

Many communities have guidelines for signs and facades. This helps create a more uniform look, ensures that no single property sticks out too much from others, and can limit concerns from nearby residents (such as signs that are too bright or too big). The aesthetics help contribute to an overall character the community wants to promote.

Naperville’s downtown is important for the community. With its revival in recent decades, the city is proud of the bustling business and social activity downtown. It wants to both nurture and protect that for the future. The downtown helps the community stand out from other suburbs and generates revenue.

So, protecting the look of downtown buildings makes sense. On the other hand, concerns about this new business could send out other signals. It sounds like JoJo’s followed existing guidelines. The end result may not be what some leaders and residents desire but it was within regulations. This commission is supposed to talk about issues like these; their task is to see how properties align with the city’s guidelines. The regulations can be changed to prevent such outcomes.

Even having an article with a headline like this might contribute to perceptions that Naperville is a snobby place. The appearance of dripping paint is a big problem for the community? Does a negative reaction welcome the new business? Is it helpful to have these conversations through a local newspaper?

It is unclear how many people and leaders in Naperville have concerns with the paint job. Will it soon be changed and/or the regulations updated to avoid a similar case? Or, can one building stand out a little in a successful downtown?

Approving a controversial suburban mosque proposal – with conditions

Religious groups can face obstacles when they want to use land and/or buildings for religious purposes. The case of one Muslim group and property in Naperville that I have followed in research and on this blog winds closer to the end but approval might come with a number of conditions:

The city’s planning and zoning commission reviewed the plan over the course of 15 hearings and heard from about 500 speakers. On Wednesday, the panel voted 6-1 in favor of the project.

The proposal now heads to the city council for final approval, although that likely won’t happen until November, according to Naperville Director of Communications Linda LaCloche…

The vote came after three hours of closing statements, and after city staff detailed 12 conditions for the ICN to accept. Eleven were accepted by ICN attorney Len Monson and the wording of a 12th was adjusted before being accepted.

Among the conditions agreed to were the ICN’s responsibility for traffic management during the facility’s busiest times, no construction after the second phase of the project until 248th Avenue is expanded, a school pickup plan for the second phase, splitting the cost with the city for a traffic signal at 248th Avenue and Honey Locust Drive, and no outdoor amplification of sound.

Several points of my research may be relevant here:

  1. Compared to other religious groups, Muslim groups do seem to encounter a lot of opposition when they make proposals.
  2. This proposal is also for a property surrounded by residences. My research suggests such a location near single-family homes can lead to more opposition from neighbors.
  3. Conditions or negotiations between communities and religious groups do happen.
  4. The conditions described above sound like they address some of the concerns raised by neighbors (and community members generally in my research): traffic and the residential/single-family home character of the area.

This particular proposal has received a lot of public comment and if it is approved by the City Council, it would be interesting to follow the neighborhood and community relations between Naperville residentsand ICN at this location and in Naperville more broadly