Monday, October 5, 2009
As previously mentioned, the TIF 4 Final Draft plan was released at a meeting on September 29. This will guide the redevelopment of the River/Rand/Golf area. Here are the Herald and Journal reports on the meeting.
You probably know that this is a controversial area; Des Plaines residents voted against creating a TIF in a non-binding referendum, but the government that was in place at that time subverted it by enacting the TIF before the public could vote. It has also been controversial because of the large numbers of businesses that could be displaced by new development.
The argument has been made that the area is not blighted because there isn't any real vacant land. But by the standards of the Illinois TIF law, it clearly fits the definition of blight because the land is inefficiently laid out (because it largely developed before it was annexed to Des Plaines in the 1950s,) because many of the buildings are deteriorated and uninviting, and because of the environmental contamination because this area has long been home to auto-related businesses, since it was one of the first 'strip' developments.
This is an issue that is clearly going to continue being controversial - rightly so - and it is likely going to be the issue focused on in the papers. So we going to sidestep that, and focus on some other issues.
The main focus so far has been on what is known as "Sub-area 5", bounded by River, Rand, and Golf, north of the railroad tracks. This has the greatest concentration of businesses, and it would virtually all be wiped out by new development. This area was the only one where public meetings have been held; several options were presented in May 2009.
Since that meeting, a few things have changed in Sub-area 5. The most prominent of these is that the River-Golf office building is now planned to stay. This has meant that the "big box" of the development (marked in one slide as a potential Target) has moved in front of the planned detention pond, and would be a two-story building instead of one, which would be a positive change. The new plan also calls for a junior anchor, possibly an office supply store, and fewer small stores, also good because it will lessen the impact on downtown and Metropolitan Square. Overall this plan is a little better than the ones presented earlier, and it looks workable, if the market will bear it. This would effect many existing businesses, but nothing historically significant.
One of the infrastructure improvements being studied are an underpass or overpass for River Road. An overpass be about 1900' long and would run from almost Golf Road to Sherman Place (where the animal hospital is). It would have to be at least 32' high. Obviously an overpass would be fairly visually obtrusive and would complicate access to anything between, such as River-Rand bowl, Riverwoods Funeral Chapel, Lions Woods, and the office building on the west side of the tracks. In contrast, an underpass would run 1160', from the Lions Woods entrance to Sherman; this would be less visible and would provide better access. However an underpass would be more prone to flooding. Perhaps someone who was at the meeting could tell us how they plan to make the adjacent businesses accessible. Perhaps it could be configured like Dempster & Milwaukee, with two lanes an underpass and two remaining at grade. Left turns would still be a problem, obviously...
The plan also calls for a lot of streetscape improvements including lighting, sidewalks, and landscaping, modeled on Waukegan Road in Morton Grove.
One of the more interesting parts is that the apartment buildings on the Northeast side of Willow may be purchased with FEMA funding and demolished, with Willow Creek restored (it runs in an underground culvert below the buildings now, causing frequent flooding.) This sounds like a good idea and could increase flood storage capacity.
But it leads to one of the oddest recommendations of the plan. On this side of Rand, Graceland would be turned to meet Rand at a 90-degree angle, by re-routing it through the site of the former gas station on the corner. So far, so good. But it calls for putting new townhomes along Rand, which would presumably front on the new creek with their backs turned to Rand. This seems like it would be better suited for commercial use; I don't see people buying townhomes on Rand, and I'm not sure it would look good from the street either. Redevelopment here would remove the existing buildings including the old Cock Robin/Top's Big Boy/J&J Sliders building that has been a car dealership for many years; I think this building would be good for a place like Paradise Pup, since people love old drive-ins; this would enhance the McDonald's museum too, since it would give an idea what the area was like then.
Speaking of which, the plan calls for closing off the portion of Lee Street between Rand and Elk, and putting more rowhouses along it except for the McDonald's. Evidently, the proposed History Campus is dead (which is probably for the best). I just can't imagine this street, facing a McDonald's and with the flashing neon lights of the McDonald's museum, as an appealing place to buy a new townhome. And it would negatively impact the museum, too - are visitors going to say, "Gee, why did Ray Kroc plop a McDonald's in the middle of a bunch of houses, and not even on an actual street? How did he possibly make that succeed?" It would be better to close off the Rand end of Lee, and leave the existing uses, if not all the existing buildings. Some context is necessary to understand that Ray Kroc built his McDonald's in anticipation of more strip retail development, which proved key to McDonald's future success in real estate. It would be wise to retain a few buildings from that era. Instead of townhomes, maybe this area on Rand and Lee could take some of the businesses displaced by redevelopment.
Oddly, the plan for Rand and Lee does keep the Des Plaines Yamaha & Suzuki building (which started life in the 1940s as an oval-shaped gas station [and possibly a drive-in too- was this a Sinclair?]) in the middle of these rowhomes, and suggests that it build an expansion on the site of the Robert Hall/U.S. Cellular building, roughly the same size as the existing building. Why not just build an addition between the two?
Some sort of preservation should occur for the Northwestern Hospital/Drury Northwestern/Polo Inn building, which the TIF plan calls for demolishing. Although it is now in poor shape, painted and carved up, its facade is very rare Egyptian-style Art Deco terra cotta, and would be beautiful if restored. The building is also historically significant as the Northwest Suburbs' only hospital for 20 years, which tells you just how small the villages were, and is the oldest building in this section of town. This building could serve as an expanded McDonald's Museum. If not, the facade could be disassembled and reused downtown, perhaps next to the Des Plaines Theatre.
Next is the Pesche's triangle. Evidently, Pesche's plans on building a new building; the presentation does not provide any details about that. Some of the 5 old greenhouses should be retained. Des Plaines was long known as one of the leading producers of flowers in the nation, because of its location as a transportation hub. We even had one of the leading greenhouse manufacturer's. Pesche's greenhouses are really the last remaining vestige of that. The other Pesche's buildings are nothing special, but the greenhouses are. Worst-case, maybe they could be disassembled and a section put up in a park.
The plan also calls for removal of the Suburban Transmissions and Geiser-Berner building to provide for a better Pesche's parking lot. Oddly, it also calls for a new restaurant to the south of Geiser-Berner. Why not leave Geiser-Berner alone? Does the 100 foot difference really matter? It is an attractive building (former Kinney Shoes) and a successful business.
Finally, the other side of River. The plan calls for redeveloping River between Sherman and Rand with a small strip center with parking to the side and rear. This would mean the stores would have their backs to the road, inhibiting visibility while still leaving it not pedestrian friendly. This is one case where parking in front is probably a good idea. It would also demolish the Wright Animal Hospital building, an attractive, successful business since 1956.
Also, the plan calls for at least 3 standalone restaurants, plus likely some in the new retail strips. Don't we want our restaurants concentrated in the downtown?
How about all that new pavement? Part of the rationale for redeveloping is that there are too many buildings on the floodplains. Maybe the pavement can be permeable, to decrease flooding. Shouldn't we stop covering all the ground with pavement, and let it soak up some water?
The plan is showing the maximum changes and is still subject to further change; it is projecting suggestions, not actual proposals. But public input is needed to refine this, so that if and when development does occur, there is a solid guideline for it. And there are doubtless other issues. What do you think? Did you attend the meeting? Can you provide further insight?