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 But, is this the true answer to a kind of development that is outdated and disliked?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.

NapervilleMagazineSep17

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.

Naperville has 11 Starbucks locations

The recent move of the downtown Naperville Starbucks to a larger location led to a quick mention of the numbers of Starbucks’ location in the suburb:

A favorite place to stop for coffee is on the go in Naperville as two of the 11 Starbucks stores in the city are preparing to move.

Naperville has collected many accolades over the last two decades (see earlier posts here, here, and here) and this may be another one: having this many Starbucks suggests the community has a certain level of wealth and quality of life. Certain businesses can set a community apart and many suburbs would love to have multiple Starbucks not just for the money they generate (think of the drip, drip, drip of sales tax revenues) but for the prestige they confer.

Here are the locations according to Google Maps:

StarbucksNaperville

Not surprisingly, the majority are located along major transportation corridors: Route 59, Ogden Avenue, and 75th Street.

Assessing the Water Street development in Naperville

Several Naperville political and business leaders talked yesterday of the impact of the now open Water Street development:

There were lengthy delays, caused by the recession and by repeated rounds of changes to the plans. First there were condos, then a Holiday Inn, and finally developers proposed what actually got built: a 158-room Hotel Indigo that incorporates elements of Naperville’s history into its design.

Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico thanked the residents who supported public officials as they took “tough votes” in support of the hotel, shops and riverfront improvements…

Investors Peter Foyo and Dominic Imburgia, for whom the new plaza and fountain are named, told the crowd they were honored to put their money toward a project that created jobs in their hometown and beautified a public place for a bustling future…

Pradel said by the looks of it, he’d never guess the new Water Street District was in Naperville. Not the Naperville where he grew up, seeing the strip of land south of the waterway remain relatively underused for decades upon decades.

It is quite a sizable project along the Riverwalk in downtown Naperville; it is hard to miss. And I wouldn’t expect many local leaders to say bad things about a just completed project. However, here are some questions I would ask about the development moving forward:

  1. Is it a portent of things to come in downtown Naperville and elsewhere in the community? Naperville has very little open land remaining so for population and business growth, redevelopment is key. But, redevelopments can take a myriad of forms, including new larger structures. Is Naperville ready for more structures of this size?
  2. Who benefits the most from this new development? It would be worth keeping track of the jobs and taxes generated by this new development. In the long run, are the developers or the city residents benefiting? (Of course, both could benefit but the construction of a larger structure came at the expense of other options. And growth machines – collections of local politicians and business leaders – tend to do things that are in their financial self-interests.)
  3. How many residents will use the new structure and visit the business establishments? The construction of a downtown hotel is an interesting move, suggesting that there may be an interest for visitors to stay downtown rather than at the numerous other hotels in the community (particularly along the business corridor along Diehl Road and I-88). In other words, is this for the use of residents or others?

See earlier posts about Water Street in Naperville here and here.

Build a tower in Naperville, possibly tear it down 17 years later

Naperville hasn’t experienced many major failures in recent decades but the Moser Tower along the Riverwalk is in trouble:

The Riverwalk Commission on Wednesday began reviewing an assessment of the structure before formulating a recommendation to the city council about what should be done with the 17-year-old Moser Tower, a 160-foot-tall spire that houses 72 chiming bells and has become an icon on the city’s skyline…

The city could fix the structure and maintain it as is for $3 million; fix it and enclose the base to help prevent future corrosion for $3.75 million; maintain it for a while and then tear it down for $1.6 million; or tear it down immediately for $660,000.

This tower has never received much support. It took longer than expected to complete and this contributed to the current issues as it couldn’t be fully enclosed with the money that was raised.

Additionally, it doesn’t receive much interest from residents today (from the article cited above):

But in a survey of Riverwalk users completed earlier this year, preserving the Moser Tower and Millennium Carillon came in last among four potential projects. When people were asked to choose their top priority, it earned 16 percent of votes.

Projects people preferred include building a park at 430 S. Washington St., just south of the DuPage River near the Burger King, which received 38 percent of votes; extending the Riverwalk south to Hillside Avenue, which got 27 percent of votes; and constructing ADA ramps at the Eagle Street Bridge, which got 19 percent.

All this on (1) the tallest structure along the Riverwalk, a recreation space regularly touted by Naperville leaders as an enduring symbol of the community’s civic-mindedness (started by citizens in the late 1970s), and (2) the largest structure in honor of Harold Moser, Mr. Naperville, who helped develop a significant portion of modern Naperville. Perhaps this will end up being a lesson to Naperville and other suburbs about embarking on unnecessary but nice commemorative projects?

A side note: the tower bears an odd resemblance to a tower from the Lord of the Rings movies.

Is the Naperville diamond interchange working?

The relatively rare concept of a diamond interchange opened at the Naperville intersection of I-88 and Route 59 in September 2015. Was the effort to reconstruct the interchange worth it?

The short answer: there has not been an official pronouncement. Proponents suggested the design has several advantages: fewer accidents since drivers are not making left turns onto or off of highway ramps, improved efficiency since cars can merge onto ramps on red lights, and less space needed. Here some pieces of evidence regarding the matter:

The Illinois Tollway is constructing another diamond interchange at I-90 and Elmhurst Road. Would they do this if their first attempt was unsuccessful?

Crashes at the intersection were down between 2015 (73) and 2016 (53).

-Since it is a busy intersection – over 180,000 vehicles a day – wouldn’t drivers and officials gone public if there were major issues with the new design? Some drivers still thought it odd as of April 2016 but Naperville issues said they were pleased.

According to DivergingDiamond.com, there are a number of diamond interchanges in the planning or construction stages across the United States.

The evidence seems to suggest the diamond interchange in Naperville is working. It still may be worthwhile to see when officials are willing to take credit or take a victory lap for their decision.