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 But, is this the true answer to a kind of development that is outdated and disliked?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

Naperville at buildout to try to avoid complacency

What does a large wealthy suburb do with little available land to expand? The mayor of Naperville put forward some ideas:

As he gave his third State of the City address Monday before a Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce crowd of 580, Chirico talked about the decisions he thinks will create a successful future with balanced finances, a strong economy and a well-run city.

“Great communities just don’t happen by accident,” he said during a lunch at the Embassy Suites hotel. “Careful planning and thoughtful decisions made Naperville the city it is today.”…

Chirico also emphasized the idea of consistent optimization toward goals of providing financial stability, economic development, public safety and a high-performing government.

“We must fight complacency — and the status quo — all day every day,” he said. “Naperville is a leader. We always have been, and we always will be. It’s simply who we are.”

These are not necessarily easy tasks for multiple reasons:

  1. Population growth is often associated with vitality and success. With little open space, population growth will have to come through infill and higher densities. Are these desirable in a sprawling suburb?
  2. Economic activity is necessary. This requires more new businesses and jobs. Properties can be redeveloped – several are highlighted in this article – but is there net economic growth over time? Additionally, Naperville has to compete with new up-and-coming places.
  3. Infrastructure and existing services cost could increase as the community ages.
  4. Having a sense of community can be difficult in any larger community. Are there common events, experiences, and spaces that bring people together and spur acts of civic activity?
  5. Naperville is a leader in the sense that it grew quickly and developed into a wealthy community with a high quality of life. Will it always be a model because of its earlier experiences or can it be a leader as a suburban innovator as many American suburbs encounter new challenges?

I will be interested to see how this all turns out in a few decades.

Why suburban governments should consider merging

While Lisle, Naperville, Warrenville, and Woodridge appeared to have little interest in merging, the long saga does raise a possibility: should more suburban governments consider merging?

The primary reason not to is that many suburbs and their local officials want to maintain control over what happens in their community and near their homes. Larger communities may make decisions for the good of the larger community that do not necessarily benefit certain members of the community. A smaller government provides closer oversight as the individual votes of residents count more.

A second reason for not merging is that suburbs often see themselves as distinct communities. Even though an outsider might see it all as one amorphous blob of suburbanism, many suburbs have long histories and distinct characters. In this particular case, these suburbs may define themselves partly as not Naperville: we are still a small community with a distinct feel.

On the other side, there may be multiple reasons to merge: financial economies of scale through combining particular city services (for example, having one police department rather than four), increased visibility and status with a larger size (controlling more land as well as having a larger population), broadening a tax base, and some communities may have mutual interests due to similar demographics, locations, or like-minded leaders. Imagine an even larger Naperville that controls a lot of land along major highways (I-88 and I-355), has a diverse tax base (particularly due to a lot of office jobs), thas efficient city services over a broad area, and is clearly the largest suburb of Chicago (Aurora currently holds that distinction). In the long run, is it feasible to keep so many suburban governments going when budgets are ever tighter? Is it worth protecting local control and distinct characters at a higher cost?

The only way I could see suburbs seriously consider merging would involve difficult financial times looming on the horizon. Even then, many suburbs may not want to take on the communities that have a weaker financial standing or a lower status.

The unclear plot to merge Lisle, Naperville, Warrenville, and Woodridge

The Daily Herald reveals details behind an odd 2017 suburban annexation push but there are still numerous unanswered questions:

Court records released this week in Will County show Dave Nelson, a former candidate for Lisle village clerk who ran on a slate with the current mayor and two trustees, was the key proponent of a plan to place referendum questions concerning the proposed mergers on spring 2017 ballots.

Court records show Nelson was working on behalf of his minor child.

The revelation is sparking questions about whether Nelson’s political allies were involved in the merger push, which long was shrouded in mystery. Some village board members also are raising questions about why some of Nelson’s allies who were elected to village posts are considering replacing the village’s legal counsel, suggesting it may be retribution for the firm’s work in uncovering Nelson’s secret…

The courts rejected the petitions in Warrenville and Woodridge because they didn’t have enough signatures and the petitions in Lisle because of procedural problems.

While we now know who started the efforts to annex these communities, there are still more questions:

  1. The article says “Nelson was working on behalf of his minor child.” Was this a school project? Something the minor child really wanted to see happen? Does it have anything to do at all with school districts?
  2. There are some issues with the Lisle local elections and the particular slate of candidates known as “Prosperity for Lisle.” In this article, they deny knowledge of what one of their candidates – Nelson – was doing. Did anyone in Lisle know what was going on?
  3. Was there any additional interaction with the other communities beyond Lisle? Nelson had earlier admitted to talking to the Naperville mayor. Was anyone else in on this?

There is more to uncover.

Tomorrow, I will discuss why suburban governments should consider merging and the reasons why it does not often happen, let alone even reach the stage of a public discussion.

Successful Naperville also linked to stressed out teenagers

Naperville is not the only wealthy suburb to experience issues related to anxiety. Here is how one expert describes how community success can be related to worries:

Michelle Rusk, former president of the American Association of Suicidology, said when it comes to community pressure placed on teens to succeed and families to maintain the idealized “white picket fence” life, little has changed since she grew up in Naperville in the 1970s and ’80s…

Experts who work with Naperville students say they are treating more children experiencing signs of distress at a younger age…

Growing up in Naperville, Rusk, formerly known as Michelle Linn-Gust, said she heard stories of big houses with empty rooms because the owners couldn’t afford to furnish them or men who left their wives because they felt they weren’t making enough money.

People move to Naperville because it’s recognized as a great place to raise a family, but maintaining that image is challenging enough for adults let alone kids, she said.

In the 1990s, historian Michael Ebner argued Naperville was a “technoburb” – a suburb with a high number of high-tech and white-collar jobs – and this was accompanied by the development of high-performing schools. Naperville was not always like this; before the 1960s, Naperville was just a small town surrounded by farms.

But, is there a way to get out of this spiral of wealth, success, and anxiety and suicides? As Rusk noted above, Naperville is attractive in part because of its high-achieving environment. In communities like this with residents ranging from the middle-class to upper-class, families want only the best for their kids. Would residents and others be willing to give up some of the success to have better lives?

Almost all suburban residents’ concerns about redevelopment expressed in one meeting

Naperville is pursuing a redevelopment project just south of the downtown train station and a recent public input meeting provided almost all the typical suburban concerns about redevelopment:

Land use and traffic are emerging as top concerns about redevelopment plans for 5th Avenue near the Naperville Metra station.

But close behind are issues of stormwater, green space, pedestrian access, the commuter experience and parking…

Promises to take time understanding and synthesizing resident wants and concerns seemed to only somewhat satisfy residents at Ryan Companies’ fourth group input session Friday afternoon. Some who attended said they want very little to be built on the land, which they see as a solution to flooding, traffic congestion and a lack of nearby park space.

“I don’t want high density,” neighbor Dana Aldrich said. “Our schools are already crowded.”

These are all common concerns. Too much traffic. Water issues. Parking. A desire for more green space. The city or developer not taking the concerns of residents seriously. Not increasing the burden on local services (and presumably property taxes), particularly schools. The only thing missing? The suggestion that property taxes will be negatively affected. Given this particular location and wealthy community, it is unlikely the proposed project would reduce property values – but realities do not always stop suburban residents from raising this specter.

It is also interesting to consider how suburban governments can proceed if residents tend to raise the same concerns almost regardless of the project. Something is likely to be done with this land since a good argument could be made that it is not serving the community as well as it might. (Redevelopment can incur new costs but it can also generate new tax revenues.) Development can be tweaked to try to assuage concerns. However, at some point, community leaders may just decide to override residents’ concerns. Perhaps the concerns are limited to a small number of vocal residents. Perhaps they would argue that as leaders they have the greater good of the community in mind.