How Naperville can present its suburban sprawl in its proposed bicentennial museum

Naper Settlement officials suggested they want to build a museum for the city’s 200th birthday:

Naperville’s 200th birthday is still about 16 years away, but Naper Settlement officials already are thinking about what the city should give itself to mark the occasion.

Their answer is Scott’s Block, a history museum made to look like a downtown building that existed between 1854 and 1975 as a bank and a gathering hall.

Imagined as a 31,000-square-foot museum to be built on the Naper Settlement campus at 523 S. Webster St., Scott’s Block would give Naperville’s historical stewards space to tell stories beginning with the city’s founding era in the 1830s. Stories of war heroes, women business leaders, even iconic ice cream shops could be displayed in the new space the settlement hopes to build in time for Naperville’s bicentennial in 2031, said Rena Tamayo-Calabrese, president and CEO…

Scott marked the nation’s 100th anniversary by building a gathering place, and the city marked its first 100 years in 1931 with the creation of Centennial Beach. Next for the city’s 150th anniversary came the Riverwalk, and Tamayo-Calabrese says now it’s time to think about what should commemorate the 200th year…

Having additional space would let the settlement bring many of the 55,000 artifacts it has in storage out for all to see in themed exhibits that could rotate throughout the year.

Naper Settlement primarily emphasizes the city’s early decades after the community was founded in the early 1830s. While these are important years, Naperville was quite small until after World War II. It is since then that the community grew to over 140,000 people and over 35 square miles. The Naperville of today is built on some of these early decisions but looks quite different now. So, what could Naper Settlement present about this era? I offer three key things Naperville residents and leaders like to discuss and one other feature that might be a bit harder to present:

1. The role of Harold Moser, known as “Mr. Naperville.” Moser ended up building dozens of subdivisions as the city expanded. The first major one was Moser Highlands just to the southeast of downtown. Moser was also involved in the community, giving lots of money and serving in a variety of roles.

2. The opening of Bell Labs in the mid 1960s just northwest of the intersection of Naperville and Warrenville Roads. The East-West Tollway opened in 1958 and Bell Labs announced the construction of a large facility in 1964. The arrival of high-tech white-collar jobs helped kick off a boom in such positions in Naperville. Today, the city is home to a number of notable companies.

3. The construction of the Riverwalk about the DuPage River. This park was part of a mid-1970s plan to help revive Naperville’s downtown that was facing stiff competition from areas like the newly-opened Fox Valley Mall (where the developer had sided with Aurora rather than Naperville). Volunteers and civic groups helped put together the first small stretch and the Riverwalk has expanded since then. It is a lively attraction during the summer and helped bring people and businesses to the downtown.

4. The one feature that might be harder to present because it doesn’t emphasize a particular person or event is the willingness of Naperville to annex land. After World War II, many suburbs across the United States had opportunities to expand. Naperville truly pursued this, annexing multiple large chunks and expanding to the north to encompass land around the interstate (capturing some of this white-collar job growth) and particularly to the south and west until finally running into other communities (Aurora in the 1970s, others in the early 2000s). One of the remarkable features of Naperville is its size and wealth; few communities its size have its level of wealth, good jobs, low crime, and low poverty.

Throwing out ideas – like gondolas – for Chicago’s Riverwalk

One Chicago firm threw out some ideas for Chicago’s proposed Riverwalk and they included the idea of gondolas:

With the city’s major overhaul of the Chicago Riverwalk and the new Lighting Framework Plan, which will bathe downtown Chicago with bright colorful lights, designers are getting creative about all of the things that can be done to transform the Riverwalk into a must-visit tourist attraction.

Local engineering outfit VIATechnik has sent us some renderings of what they imagine the Riverwalk could one day become. Their ideas for the Riverwalk include cafes, live music, a fitness center, and even gondola tours. Ok, so the Chicago River is already pretty crowded, and probably wouldn’t be the best place for relaxing gondola rides, but there’s no doubt that in a few years the area will be completely transformed, and will become a much more popular tourist spot.

A rep from VIATechnik told us that they aren’t actually submitting these ideas to the city for the Lighting Framework Plan, or any other initiative, but instead, they just wanted to throw the ideas out there to generate some discussion, and of course some publicity. Previously, the company held their own unofficial Lucas Museum design competition, and received some pretty submissions.

Even if the gondolas were intended to generate more discussion, they raise an interesting question: how much can a city borrow from other cities in a new development? Chicago is not the first place to consider a Riverwalk – in fact, I wonder what has taken so long, particularly given Chicago’s lauded protection of land along Lake Michigan – but it is difficult to develop completely new ideas. A city does not want to ape other cities but you can likely borrow some if you put your own twist on things.  Gondolas seem too derivative yet is there a Chicago style small boat that fits what you would want in these situations?

How the final approval for Naperville’s Water Street project could change the downtown

Naperville’s downtown is expanding. Last week, the city council approved a new development on Water Street:

Following months of debate, councilmen tied up loose ends in a brief discussion before voting 6-2 in favor of the project.

The development proposed by Marquette Companies is targeted for 2.4-acres bounded by Aurora Avenue on the south, the DuPage River on the north, Main Street on the east and Webster Street on the west. The plan calls for a 166-room boutique hotel, 524-space parking garage, restaurants, shops, offices and a plaza.

Proponents say the project will add a much-needed hotel to the downtown and add to the vibrancy of the area. But others have expressed concerns about issues such as building heights, traffic, parking and impact on the Riverwalk. Councilmen gave preliminary approval to a scaled-down version of the plan last month and reaffirmed their vote Tuesday…

In addition to upcoming discussions about a possible financial incentive, the city also must negotiate with Marquette Companies over what public improvements will be funded by tax increment financing money because the project sits in a TIF district.

This could be a big change for Naperville. Here’s why:

1. It moves the downtown across the DuPage River in a big way. This could lead to more changes down the road, perhaps eventually connecting the downtown to Edwards Hospital.

2. It brings in a significant hotel presence into the downtown. Naperville has a number of hotels along the I-88 corridor which helps provides space for nearby office complexes but these could help downtown businesses, festivals, and other functions.

3. The addition of a big parking garage will help relieve parking pressure in the downtown. In recent years, there had been a lot of discussion about a new garage on the site of the Nichols Library parking lot but that may be shelved for a while now.

4. It puts a mixed-use development right on the Riverwalk, something that has been lacking to this point. While the Riverwalk is popular and opens up the space along the DuPage River, most of the businesses near the Riverwalk back up to it rather than face it and incorporate it into their space.

I’m looking forward to seeing what this development looks like and how it contributes to the downtown.

Naperville thinking of expanding its Riverwalk

Naperville’s Riverwalk is often touted as a key feature of the community. Riverwalk officials are now interested in expanding it further south:

Chairman Jeff Havel said an extension would link Edward Hospital and Knoch Park to the downtown.

The idea came up last summer when McDonald’s was looking to open a restaurant at the southeast corner of Hillside Road and Washington Street near the Riverwalk’s current terminus. That plan fell through and the site is still occupied by a Citgo gas station. It is the only piece of land along the proposed extension the city does not currently own.

Havel said the Riverwalk Commission is always looking to complete gaps in the path’s boundaries, update its appearance and improve safety, accessibility and hospitality…

If the plan does move forward as Park District Commissioner Ron Ory hopes it does, he said he would like to see it happen through volunteer efforts and private funding.

I’d say go for it, particularly if the cost could be kept low in the spirit of the original Riverwalk that was first created with donated time and materials from people in the community. The Riverwalk is a unique feature of Naperville; while the DuPage River is not that grand as it winds through the community, it still provides something few suburbs have. For most of its history, the river was not accentuated in the community even though early Naperville featured a mill on the river. Buildings in the downtown that backed up to the river did little to provide an interface between the two places. But, with the first Riverwalk planning beginning in the 1970s and the first section opening on Labor Day in 1981, it has provided a public space and a park right in the middle of downtown.

Also, such a park can continue a process that has been taking in DuPage County over recent decades: using land along waterways as park land or Forest Preserve land. The DuPage County Forest Preserve has bought a lot of land around the branches of the DuPage River and Naperville can contribute to this project with a Riverwalk extension.

A third point: I wonder if this was lurking behind Naperville’s tough questions of the proposed McDonald’s on Washington Street. If the proposed site is the only site along the river the city does not own, this earlier decision makes more sense.