Naperville at #1 on several Niche.com Best Cities lists

Naperville adds to its rankings accolades with the new 2021 Niche.com lists:

Naperville was also ranked #1 for Cities with the Best Public Schools and #3 for Best Cities to Live in America. See previous posts about Naperville’s rankings: “wealthiest city in the Midwest” and “safest city over 100,000 residents.”

This ongoing praise for Naperville makes sense both for knowing the suburb as well as what sorts of communities make it to the top of these kinds of lists. Naperville grew tremendously in the final decades of the twentieth century but it also developed a high quality of life: vibrant downtown, highly-rated schools, local recreation opportunities, wealthy, and safe. The accolades have changed to some degree because the size of the community changed; for example, Naperville is the list of “cities” for Niche.com while the Best Places to Live in America tend to be smaller communities.

If you browse the Niche.com rankings just a little bit, you see wealthy suburbs from certain metro areas in the United States. That the same communities keep popping up on these lists year after year suggests they have an ongoing high quality of life but also it hints at what Americans – and people who make these rankings – think are desirable communities. Is the goal of American life to ascend to one of these well-off communities, most of them relatively white and wealthy suburbs?

“Unprecedented volume of public participation” regarding development plans for Naperville mosque

Updating a case I wrote about in a 2019 article, further plans for a property owned by the Islamic Center of Naperville on the suburb’s southwest side have drawn a lot of public comments:

Google Maps

The Islamic Center of Naperville, or ICN, is seeking zoning variances so members can develop a mosque, school, multipurpose hall, gymnasium and worship-area expansion in five phases over the next 40 years…

Naperville city planner Gabrielle Mattingly said the city received “an unprecedented volume of public participation” for the hearing, including nearly 2,000 names in support or opposition, 770 written comments and 160 people who signed up to speak…

The commission was able to spend 20 minutes at their meeting this week scrolling through the 1,610 signatures favoring ICN’s plans and the 305 in opposition…

ICN’s development plans show the first phase, expected to start this year, includes constructing a two-story mosque with 26,219 square feet of space to provide space for 692 worshippers, said Len Monson, the attorney representing ICN. It also will include space for offices, conference rooms, storage, multipurpose spaces and washrooms.

One interesting aspect of this proposal is that it lays out several stages that progressively increase the size of the mosque over the next forty years. Building in stages could make sense for a lot of religious groups: they could wait and see how many people are attending and it could help spread out the need for financial resources.

When the Islamic Center of Naperville requested in 2011 that Naperville annex this land with the goal of eventually constructing a facility on the property, neighbors expressed concerns. The City Council unanimously approved the request but the reactions in Naperville occurred around the same time as several other mosque proposals in DuPage County encountered opposition.

Additionally, this property is surrounded on all sides by residences. I have found in my research that locations near homes tends to increase concerns raised by community members. In Naperville and numerous other communities in the United States, residents used to nearby open spaces or agricultural land can hope the land always stays in that form rather than become home to a new building or development.

It is hard to know from this article how many of the public comments are in support of the proposed changes and how many are opposed. Even if the number of supporters is large or a majority, that would still suggest a sizable number of people with concerns.

Trying to forecast future suburban commuting patterns, Naperville edition

The Naperville train stations are busy – until COVID-19. So how full will the parking lots be in the future?

Photo by Irina Iriser on Pexels.com

The city conducted a survey in the fall to gather data on commuting habits and gauge when people expect to return to work. The information will be used as the city reevaluates the Commuter Parking and Access Work Plan instituted in 2019…

A survey shows 81% of respondents are not commuting, but 75% indicated they expect to return to their “pre-pandemic schedule for commuting by Metra” by the end of 2021…

The survey shows 1,642 respondents, or 76%, said they commuted on Metra four or more days per week before the pandemic. But 37%, or 797, said they expect to continue commuting four or more days when life gets back to normal…

When people do return to a regular commute, Naperville’s parking survey showed 69% of responders would like the city to consider other payment options beyond quarterly and daily fees.

Trying to forecast commuting via multiple means – train, car, bus, subway, etc. – is going to be difficult for a while. As the article notes, a work from home option from many employers could continue. The willingness of commuters to return to mass transit and regularly proximity to others also might matter (and more of those who return to the office might choose driving which leads to other problems).

Yet, even if ridership or commuting stays low, systems still need to run and be maintained. With less revenue, how do transportation systems and municipalities keep up with costs?

This can contribute to an ongoing chicken-and-egg problem often posed in the United States. If there was better mass transit, would this lead to increased use? Or, do you have to have increased ridership or interest before building out transit systems?

The effects could be broader than just infrastructure and local budgets. Populations might shift if people change their commuting patterns for the long-term. Workplaces and offices could be very different. Suburbs, already built around private homes and lots of driving, could change in character and land use.

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.