Living in, working in, and guiding Naperville for over 70 years

Long-time Naperville mayor George Pradel’s work in the suburb spanned tremendous change in the suburb:

When Naperville was a mid-sized suburb, beginning to outgrow its small-town roots but maintaining a family-friendly feel, Pradel was a police officer. He joined the force in 1966 and made his top priority children, teaching them to stay safe and letting them know someone was watching out for them. His actions made him Officer Friendly before he even took on the title as his nickname.

When Naperville was a growing city, expanding as developers turned farm fields into sprawling subdivisions, Pradel was a mayor. An unlikely mayor at that — the faithful, cheerful cop never intended to take on the role…

He became mayor because a handful of residents asked him to seek the seat, and Pradel never did master the art of tactfully saying “no.” With only a concession speech prepared, he won his first election in 1995, defeating a two-term city council member who worked in human resources for DuPage County. The newly minted mayor took office that spring. His hometown pride never ceased.

Born in Hyde Park on Sept. 5, 1937, as one of six children, Pradel was 2 when his family moved to a small house on Van Buren Avenue in Naperville. He always called it home.

When Pradel’s family first moved to Naperville in 1939, the community had just over 5,000 residents. When he joined the police force in 1966, the population was still short of 20,000. As a new mayor, the population was around 100,000. When his mayoral tenure ended, the city had over 142,000 residents. This is tremendous population change over one lifetime.

I wonder if a vocal and enthusiastic figure like Pradel helped ease the transition from small town to large suburb. Significant growth can change how residents feel about the community and their neighbors. Who are these newcomers? Do we have to build so many new schools? Where are all the locally-owned businesses? Why is the traffic so bad as I try to get across town? Naperville still tries to claim to be a small-town at heart and having a central popular figure to focus on could help.

How much influence mayors have in sizable communities is difficult to pin down exactly. Pradel will certainly be remembered for the length of his service as well as his efforts to boost the community. Might someone of a different temperament accomplished other things? Was Naperville already well on its way to what it is today when Pradel took office? How much did spending his formative years in the small town affect his later efforts? Regardless of the answers, it is hard to imagine there are many small children in Naperville today who will stay in the community for just as long or many who will see such change as Pradel witnessed.

When considering redevelopment projects, balancing concerns of neighbors and “market demand”

A recent meeting in Naperville about redevelopment plans for 5th Avenue involved interested parties with two different perspectives. These two views are extremely common in debates about development and redevelopment. The Daily Herald encapsulates the issue in two sentences toward the end of the article:

Resident Sandee Whited said she thinks Ryan Companies is “ignoring what we want” in terms of building height.

McDonald said the company is listening to residents’ wishes but balancing them with market demand.

When opposing redevelopment, the argument of neighbors often revolves around this idea: the new structure or land use is out of tune with the surrounding properties. People bought single-family homes because they liked the residential character (single-family homes, lots, quieter, safer, etc.). Multi-family housing or a larger structure disrupts this character. In this Naperville case, concerns about the larger structure include changes to traffic and light.

When promoting redevelopment, developers and local leaders will argue – not always explicitly – that growth is good. Here, it is phrased in terms of “market demand.” In other words, there are possible businesses and residents who would be willing to pay good money to be located in the structure. Naperville is a desirable place to locate: certain businesses could generate a lot of money with a location near the train station and downtown while residents would enjoy the high quality of life, the status of the community, and the access to the train station. The new development will generate profits for the developers and perhaps more tax revenues and an increased status for the city.

Balancing these two perspectives is not easy. At times, neighbors might be able to rally the whole community with the implied threat that a single development could change what is possible in the community and more single-family homes will be under threat. This claim is a little harder to make in Naperville given its downtown and size but the city does have relatively few tall structures near single-family homes. The developers and the city may be able to convince the community that this redevelopment project is a good asset for everyone, even if a few neighbors are inconvenienced.

 

“One Naperville” sticker, more diverse suburb

While recently at a rest stop in Indiana, I saw a minivan with an Illinois license plate and this sticker on the back:

No automatic alt text available.

Given the uniqueness of the sticker and my scholarly interest in Naperville, I almost snapped a picture of the vehicle but did not feel so inclined with its passengers standing not too far away. Instead, I found the image on the Internet. I do not know if there are ongoing “One Naperville” efforts but I found an event from September 11, 2016 commemorating 9/11 put on by the Naperville Interfaith Leadership Alliance. The similarities in style to the “Coexist” bumper stickers are due to the makers of this sticker (see bottom right). The peacemonger.org people are the same ones behind the original “Coexist” design.

Naperville is known for a number of features including its wealth, its high ranking in a number of listings of quality places (examples here, here, and here), its fast-growing population at the end of the twentieth century, its vibrant downtown, its office space along I-88, and, more recently, its diversity. According to QuickFacts from the U.S. Census Bureau:

NapervilleQuickFacts

That this large and wealthy suburb is only 68.1% white alone is notable. The diversity is noticeable in different retail establishments, those using the city’s Riverwalk, the local government naming liaisons to minority groups, and the presence of different religious groups (including mosques).

However, Naperville was not always this way.

What it costs to maintain dozens of pieces of public art in Naperville

Naperville’s Riverwalk and downtown features dozens of works of art. However, it takes resources to keep that art nice and to keep adding new pieces:

In 2016, the city started to set aside about $50,000 a year for maintenance of public art from its food and beverage tax revenue, which is pooled into a fund named for the activities it supports — Special Events and Cultural Amenities.

Since its founding in 1996, Century Walk has installed works at 48 locations, some of which involve several pieces by large numbers of artists, and others that involve intricate or large-scale works by individual talents…

Others on the council agree, but some say there should be a stronger focus on planning for the future of Naperville’s outdoor art, setting aside money for maintenance or requiring future projects to come with some sort of endowment for their long-term care. Century Walk Chairman Brand Bobosky, for his part, wants the city’s maintenance fund increased and coupled with money for new art creation, to the tune of $200,000 a year…

In the past three years, Mondero has repaired the broken tiles on the bench damaged by skateboards, rebuilt a wall called “Man’s Search for Knowledge Through the Ages” that was damaged by a vehicle, repainted two murals, bolted the arm of a sculpted man to hold it in place and cleaned several plaques.

Not all suburbs would be willing to (1) initiate public art in the first place and then (2) invest city resources into it. Yet, Naperville clearly sees it as part of the package it offers to residents and visitors: come to the Riverwalk, enjoy the vibrant suburban downtown, and take in the public art that often commemorates the suburb’s past. The art is not exactly edgy; Naperville is not going after street art or modern art (see the example of the Bart Simpson image that popped up a few years ago). The art that Naperville does have is intended to help tell the community’s story and present interesting visual displays for visitors.

Whether the public art can come first and help create a vibrant suburban area is debatable. Plenty of suburban communities want mixed-use areas that bring in visitors and generate revenue and art is often viewed as part of that package. But, it is unlikely that public art alone could create such a setting. The suburb would already need a confluence of enough residents, resources to apply to such an area, and a good plan for development or redevelopment.

Naperville to add 6,600 seat indoor concert venue

While a new development in the northwest corner of Naperville seems to be primarily about ice hockey, the facility could also accommodate sizable concerts:

Extra landscaping to block sound will be negotiated into a plan for an ice rink and entertainment venue soon to be developed in Naperville.

CityGate Centre North will be a 209,589-square-foot facility with two NHL-regulation-sized ice rinks and seating for up to 4,600 for hockey games or 6,600 for concerts…

Ken Witkowski, senior vice president of Calamos Real Estate LLC and a former law enforcement official, said CityGate Centre North plans to be largely dedicated to hockey and ice skating uses with several local clubs and a semipro team. But owners are keeping their concert options open and Witkowski said they also could plan up to two concerts, expos or other entertainment events a month.

He said the concrete outer walls of the $60.2 million arena will absorb sound created inside, and security on site will “maintain proper decorum.”

Does a facility like this give Naperville a new edge in the competitive suburban entertainment scene? This would help fill a gap in the west suburban entertainment scene: a decent-sized concert venue. The northwest suburbs have the Sears Center and Allstate Arena. Gymnasiums on college campuses throughout the metropolitan region can host concerts. This sized facility would fit between larger (think United Center, Allstate Arena) and smaller venues (think theaters). It would also be in a wealthy community where plenty of nearby residents could pony up money for tickets.

At the same time, it is a little funny that a suburban concert venue will be constructed next to a retirement community, warehouses, and a nice hotel. There are a jumble of uses just off Route 59 north of I-88 and they are not necessarily all compatible.

It will also be interesting to see how much the concert potential affects the design of the facility. Could this accommodate high-tech shows? Could the hottest new acts be headed to Naperville, Illinois?

 

Avoiding the shame of Ogden Avenue in southwest Naperville

Thinking more about the decision in Naperville to turn down a car repair shop for a vacant property, I was reminded of how Naperville would prefer its retail areas to look: not like how Ogden Avenue has looked:

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…

And my own comments on this:

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.

In other words, higher-status suburbs want to avoid stretches along major roads that are marked by fast-food restaurants, car dealers and car repair places, strip malls, signs for retailers and businesses, and endless curb cuts. These may be quintessential American stretches – everything is accessible by car, it separates these uses from residential areas, it crassly shows off consumerism – but they are not considered aesthetically pleasing nor do the businesses that locate there tend to cater to a wealthier clientele.

The step up from this jumble of businesses would be the locations of retailers and businesses around shopping malls and “lifestyle centers.” These nodes are increasingly organized around entertainment and eating. They offer opportunities to have a single unifying aesthetic as well as walkability within the development. This is what Naperville has aimed for in Naperville Crossings with a large movie theater, numerous restaurants, and smaller retailers. It is supposed to look more like a small town and be less threatening to nearby upscale housing.

One final thought about Naperville Crossings: even within a wealthy suburb like Naperville, there is vacant space in an upscale development that has been open for quite a while. It is hard to know whether this reflects on Naperville and the surrounding area or is indicative of broader headwinds facing businesses and retailers.

When a car repair shop is not high-status enough in Naperville

Naperville has “high hopes” for the Naperville Crossings commercial and entertainment development on the southwest side of the large suburb. These plans do not include a “high-end” auto repair shop:

But nearby homeowners associations weren’t in favor of it, and city council members didn’t go for it, either. By a 6-3 tally, they voted down the shop’s request for a conditional use, saying the business isn’t what they envisioned for the area and they’re willing to wait for something that is…

Jonathan Wakefield, development director for Houston-based Christian Brothers, said the shop would play well with its neighbors because people need somewhere to go or something to do while waiting on car repairs. The shop would have run shuttles to work, school or Metra stations, but he predicted some customers would stay and shop or grab a bite to eat.

Council member Kevin Coyne still was hesitant, saying a car repair business doesn’t blend well next to a day care, a fire station and a frozen custard shop.

“What of any cachet will want to move in next door to an awkward mix of business uses,” Coyne said.

Mike Reilly, president of the nearby White Eagle homeowners association, predicted “the start of a downward trend for Naperville Crossings” if council members were to abandon the original goal and allow the repair shop.

This is a common issue in many suburbs: a retail development has long-standing vacancies. See earlier posts involving grocery stores (here and here) and shopping malls (here and here). But, how many of these suburbs turn down possible occupants in order to wait for better ones? I would guess Naperville is in a minority of suburbs that can afford to do this.

Additionally, I would be interested to dig more into what is so bad about a higher-end car repair place. More noise? Most of the activity would take place during business hours. A lower-class clientele? Maybe; everyone needs a car in Naperville and there are plenty of wealthy residents nearby who need their cars serviced? The lower status activity of car repair? Perhaps this is similar to homeowner’s associations restricting car repairs in driveways and limiting the parking of RVs and work trucks and vans. This seems like an issue of social class and Naperville as a wealthier suburb with a certain reputation will wait for a more appealing use.