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updated: 8/1/2013 8:35 AM

Geneva hopes to strengthen ties to Fox River

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  • The patio area at the Mill Race Inn in Geneva reflects the restaurant's current state: closed and looking for a buyer. City officials envision, however, that the property could be redeveloped with housing and stores, especially if combined with a neighboring property.

       The patio area at the Mill Race Inn in Geneva reflects the restaurant's current state: closed and looking for a buyer. City officials envision, however, that the property could be redeveloped with housing and stores, especially if combined with a neighboring property.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • A prime area for redevelopment is on the western bank of the Fox River in Geneva, near River Lane and Ford Street, according to the city's Downtown/Station Area Master Plan.

       A prime area for redevelopment is on the western bank of the Fox River in Geneva, near River Lane and Ford Street, according to the city's Downtown/Station Area Master Plan.
    Emmalee Luckas | Staff Photographer

  • Even though its downtown is some distance from the Fox River, Geneva always has been mindful of the river's potential. Here's a view from the annual Fox Valley Folk Music & Storytelling Festival at Island Park.

       Even though its downtown is some distance from the Fox River, Geneva always has been mindful of the river's potential. Here's a view from the annual Fox Valley Folk Music & Storytelling Festival at Island Park.
    John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
 

All this fuss about noticing the Fox River; repurposing buildings to take advantage of the Fox River; tourism along the Fox River.

It's been going on for decades in Geneva.

Exhibit 1: The Mill Race Inn. Former blacksmith shop turned into a restaurant.

In 1933.

Exhibit 2: The AAA 4-Diamond Herrington Inn. Built in the 1990s on the site of a former dairy creamery; banquet room is in the former city pump house.

Exhibit 3: Island Park. Sold to the city 100 years ago. Pavilion, bridges, retaining wall built in the 1930s. Subject of a Works Progress Administration mural in the Geneva post office. Geneva History Center has a photo in its gallery showing people swimming in the "old mill race."

Exhibit 4: Fox River Trail. Former railway right of way. Turned in to recreational amenity in the 1970s. (OK, so more towns than Geneva were involved.)

And it is likely Geneva will continue to tout the river as a benefit to its downtown judging by a plan the city council adopted in November. Its currents, which used to power saw mills and flour mills, provide a different energy today, according to Mayor Kevin Burns.

"The more people understand the power the river still provides, the more attention will be focused on its beauty," he said.

Geneva's riverside

Unlike Batavia or St. Charles, the river doesn't exactly run through the heart of Geneva's downtown, unless you think the downtown runs out another mile to East Side Drive, which city planning officials do.

Pedestrians shopping the Third Street boutiques have to hike almost one-third of a mile to get to the river. And there are only two ways to walk across it: the State Street bridge or the pedestrian bridge under the railroad overpass at the south end of Island Park. That deposits you on the Fox River Trail by the city's sewage treatment plant.

Other than the Fox Valley Folk Music and Storytelling Festival, few large events are conducted down by the river. The Geneva Park District does have weekly concerts at Island Park during the summer. Geneva RiverPark, a volunteer-built park, has a small amphitheater where concerts and plays are performed.

Other than Atwater's restaurant at the Herrington Inn, there aren't any restaurants with views of the river, at least not since the Mill Race Inn closed in 2011. Plans to build a restaurant on North Bennett Lane (Route 25) died during the recession.

Some room for improvement

The role of the river has changed substantially since Burns water-skied on it as a child in the 1970s. Before that, people saw its value in what kind of electrical power it could generate, and as "a dumping ground" for industrial waste, he said.

But beginning in the early 1980s, the attitude of the town changed.

"The policymakers have decided the river itself is indeed an asset," he said.

Visitors to Island Park, or the more recent RiverPark, are then exposed to the rest of what the downtown has to offer.

Real estate developer Kent Shodeen certainly saw value, building the Geneva on the Dam commercial complex north of State and the Herrington Inn to the south.

And the river could be an attraction for redevelopment of some properties, according to the city's 2012 Downtown/Station Area Master Plan.

Looking ahead

That plan included two sites near the river as "opportunity sites." They are the Mill Race Inn, at the southwest corner of State Street and Route 25, and the neighborhood of the former Geneva Bottling Works at River Lane and Ford Street.

First Ward Alderman Mike Bruno, a fan of historic preservation, figures the Mill Race Inn property will be a tricky site to develop. It is in a flood plain, as evidenced by the building's lower level filling with water when the river flooded Island Park in 2007.

He also figures it makes sense to package it with an existing retail building to the north.

Geneva Bottling Works could become a small commercial development, and the residential areas to the north and west of it might be suited for single-family row houses and multifamily apartment-style buildings, according to the plan.

"Where else can you dine or live and have access to a world-class park?" Burns asked. Not to mention Geneva's charming shopping district, he adds.

And to better integrate river amenities such as the trails and parks with the downtown, there should be more ways for pedestrians to get to them, the report stated. It proposed two new pedestrian bridges: one spanning the river from Bennett Park to Stevens Street, and one from the east bank to Island Park.

And public access to the riverside, even on private property, should be maintained, according to the report.

Burns' opponent in the April election criticized the plan as "pie-in-the-sky" thinking. But Burns said the report "saves a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of costs and a lot of headaches," because developers who read it know what the city wants. He said there is a lot of interest in the Mill Race Inn property.

There are no tax-incentive financing districts along Geneva's riverfront from which to pull incentive money for development or improvements, unlike Batavia and North Aurora.

"We would not rule out opportunities to provide incentives," Burns said. But, he said, the city may not need to do so.

"A business in that part (along the river) has with it an added advantage because of the natural beauty," he said.

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