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:

Photo by Kelly L on Pexels.com

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

Naperville: large suburb built through decades of suburban sprawl now wants to be a leader in sustainability

The Naperville City Council recently approved several plans from the report from a sustainability task force that made a number of recommendations:

Aerial view of Naperville, Illinois

Highlights include transitioning to clean and renewable energy, incentivizing energy efficiency, developing a plan for electric vehicle infrastructure, increasing public transportation use and recycling efforts, and focusing on the maintenance of natural resources.

Other objectives include a 4% annual reduction in waste, energy use and vehicle miles driven in conjunction with an increase in tree planting to help decrease greenhouse gases by 4% each year.

One of the recent steps taken by the city was hiring Ben Mjolsness as Naperville’s first sustainability coordinator. Mjolsness on Tuesday talked about the many options and incentives residents have with energy efficiency and recycling.

Councilman Patrick Kelly said he looked forward to showcasing Naperville as a front-runner in sustainability.

Many communities will be pursuing such plans in coming years. But, the particular context of Naperville is interesting to consider for multiple reasons:

  1. It is a large and wealthy suburb. It has the resources to pursue this.
  2. Naperville likes to be a leader among suburbs and this may help further this status in coming years.
  3. Sixty years ago or even forty years ago, Naperville was much smaller in population and had a smaller footprint in land use. Today, it has nearly 150,000 people and roughly 39 square miles of land with much of this involving single-family homes.

In one sense, the growth patterns that helped make the Naperville of today possible – explosive growth in the postwar era built around homes and driving – also make pursuing sustainability more difficult. Take the reducing the miles driven goal from above. Some residents of Naperville could do this but many are in subdivisions whose roads then feed to large arterial roads. This does not work as well for biking (and the weather in the area may not help). Additionally, the sprawl makes mass transit more difficult. In the past, Naperville has tried buses in the community but they do not get much use (even as the train stations are some of the busiest with commuters going toward Chicago). The best way for Naperville to achieve this goal may be to encourage local businesses to allow employees to work from home, thus limiting commuting needs.

Not mentioned in the news article above (it could be in the report) is the density of the community. One way to improve sustainability in the long run is to have denser housing, particularly near locations where other forms of transportation other than driving are possible. This could be in and around the downtown. It could be in different nodes around the community where there are jobs or where it would be possible to pursue transit-oriented development. As a bonus, denser housing might also provide more opportunities for affordable housing. Naperville has thought about these options in the past but they are not always popular given the single-family home character of the community.

As Naperville pursues sustainability, some actions will be relatively painless given what the community can do. Other conversations about long-term changes or how to address sprawl might take much longer for a consensus to emerge.

What does it mean if the suburb of Naperville is the first US community to have two Amazon Fresh locations?

Signs point to a second Amazon Fresh store in Naperville and if it comes to reality, the suburb will be the only community in the country with two locations.

Photo by Sagar Soneji on Pexels.com

All signs point to a second Amazon Fresh grocery store opening soon in Naperville.

While city officials haven’t been notified of definitive plans for the site at 1351 E. Ogden Ave., Naperville Director of Communications Linda LaCloche said Amazon Fresh recently applied for a liquor license at the location. An opening date is unknown, but the building is currently being renovated and looks similar to the city’s other Amazon Fresh location on Route 59.

Naperville would become the first city in the country with two Amazon Fresh grocery stores…

According to Amazon’s website, there are only four Amazon Fresh locations in Illinois. In addition to Naperville, there are stores in Bloomingdale, Oak Lawn and Schaumburg.

Naperville may not be the only two store location for long and being the first means something. What is so attractive about Naperville as a location? Here are a few possible reasons:

-It is a wealthy and large community: over 148,000 residents with a median household income of nearly $126,000 (both 2019 estimates). This adds up to a lot of potential customers. Naperville is known for high white-collar jobs and tech jobs. These could also provide a good customer base.

-Naperville as a community has received many accolades. It has a high quality of life, high performing schools, and a vibrant downtown. It is a high status community and companies like to associate with such communities.

-Naperville is in favor of business and growth. This dates back decades with pro-growth decisions in the postwar era, includes tax incentives for corporations, and a desire to improve the streetscape along Ogden Avenue, a major roadway.

-Naperville is outside Chicago and in the Midwest, “normal America” locations for testing new concepts and ideas.

Put this all together and Amazon finds it worthwhile to go forward with two locations in Naperville.

Parkway tree diversity in Naperville

The Naperville city logo prominently features a tree. And in replacing parkway trees lost to a tornado last month, the city is working with a number of species:

Photo by Domen Mirtiu010d Dolenec on Pexels.com

Residents are being given the option of choosing the type of tree they’d like planted in their home’s parkway. The only stipulation is the choice needs to be approved from Public Works’ forestry division, and anyone who doesn’t make a selection will be assigned a tree…

The city’s spring list of authorized trees includes the shingle oak, Kentucky coffee tree, Hackberry, hybrid elm, tulip tree, plane-tree, Japanese tree lilac, silver linden, chinquapin oak, crabapple, American linden, red oak, swamp white oak and heritage oak.

There’s also a list of tree species that never will be authorized by the city’s forestry division. Among those are the ailanthus or Tree of Heaven; evergreen conifers such as a pine, spruce or fir; any variety of ash; Hawthorns, unless they’re thornless; Bradford pears; pin oaks; box elders; poplars; willows; cottonwoods; silver maples; and elms, unless they’re disease resistant.

I presume such a list of approved species exists for multiple reasons. Having a variety of species helps prevent issues with diseases or insects that wipe out trees, like elms or ash trees. The shape, size, and foliage of certain trees is better for a parkway setting. Some trees are simply not desirable generally; a few months, I heard a speaker give a short digression on why they hate bradford pear trees.

This is not a choice that should be taken lightly. There is a section in James Howard Kunstler’s TED Talk “The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs” where he discusses the multiple benefits of trees along streets. This includes providing shade and a canopy for the street and sidewalks as well as separating the street and its vehicles from the sidewalks. If done well, trees along a road create an inviting environment. If done poorly, the trees are too few, they die or are scraggly, and the roadway and pathways just look barren.