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posted: 9/16/2013 1:58 PM

Elgin's riverfront plans, then and now

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  • A view of Elgin's riverfront today, looking north along the Fox River from downtown.

       A view of Elgin's riverfront today, looking north along the Fox River from downtown.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • To attract visitors to the Elgin from the upcoming Chicago World Fair, an Elgin mayor promoted this 1931 plan -- drawn by Elgin architect Elmer Gylleck -- for the downtown.

      To attract visitors to the Elgin from the upcoming Chicago World Fair, an Elgin mayor promoted this 1931 plan -- drawn by Elgin architect Elmer Gylleck -- for the downtown.
    Courtesy Elgin Area Historical Society

  • This early 1900s postcard shows how Elgin's downtown buildings literally turned their backs on the river as the city grew.

      This early 1900s postcard shows how Elgin's downtown buildings literally turned their backs on the river as the city grew.
    Courtesy of Jerry Turnquist

  • Plans for a $10.5 million riverfront promenade are scheduled to be completed later this year, according to city officials.

      Plans for a $10.5 million riverfront promenade are scheduled to be completed later this year, according to city officials.
    Courtesy of city of Elgin and Hitchcock Design Gro

 

The construction of a multimillion dollar riverfront promenade in Elgin's downtown is transforming the area into a showpiece for the region.

But plans for redevelopment of this Fox River community are nothing new.

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In the 1960s -- after the construction of a riverside drive and parking deck -- the city proposed adding new facades to the rear of the buildings. This plan, which was meant to reorient buildings that had traditionally turned their backs toward the river, would only see minimal implementation over the years.

An even grander plan was proposed by an Elgin mayor in the early 1930s. Lack of support and the deepening Depression would eventually see that dream fall by the wayside.

Elgin's downtown in the early 1930s was a bustling shopping center for the region. Huddled into just a few blocks was about everything anyone could want -- retail stores, professional offices, and entertainment.

Many of the businesses faced South Grove Avenue with their backs toward the river. Rears of the stores were used for delivery and pick up of merchandise, with interurban streetcar tracks crowded into the area. To be blunt, the dimly lit area wasn't a destination for many.

It was time for a change, said Elgin Mayor Myron Lehman in 1931. With the arrival of the Chicago World's Fair in 1933, the forward-thinking mayor said many people would be visiting Elgin and the city needed to make some improvements.

Lehman commissioned Elmer Gylleck, an Elgin architect who had worked in the Chicago area, to do a rendering of how the Elgin riverfront might be beautified and made more functional. The drawing -- now in the collection of the Elgin Area Historical Society -- shows a night scene with beacon lights shining from the Elgin Tower Building and another from the Professional Building on Division Street.

Instead of an undeveloped riverfront, there were two ornamental "sea walls" at the water's edge. Atop the wall sat decorative streetlights. In the center of the wall area was a landscaped boat landing.

Lehman had even consulted with railroad officials and had proposed improvements to the west bank of the river. This included a decorative wall with ornamental lighting. Railroad tracks would be reconfigured to allow more parking at the station. Lehman also called for the removal of the building at the Chicago Street station so trains could stop without blocking traffic on the Chicago and Highland Avenue bridges.

The mayor said he had consulted with other city council members and the plan was viewed as "feasible." This all sounded like a "dream" but the improvements could be made, Lehman said.

The deepening Depression eventually saw the plan being shelved. Instead of riverfront improvements, the city was dealing with home foreclosures and unemployed people lining up at the Salvation Army "Canteen" for something to eat.

A parking deck was built in the 1960s -- a project accomplished by driving piles into the river. Eventually, a second level was added. About 10 years ago, the area was closed to pedestrians and vehicles when sections of the deck began to fall into the river.

Riverside Drive has become a priority area for downtown development since Festival Park and the Civic Riverwalk area are now completed, according to the city of Elgin website.

About a decade ago, Hitchcock Design Group began working with Walker Parking Consultants and city officials to develop alternative designs for the riverfront. Several years later, Hitchcock was selected through a competitive process to finalize designs and bid documents for the construction of the improvements.

The plans took a big leap forward a year ago when the city received $8 million in River's Edge Redevelopment Zone money from the state of Illinois and another $1 million in Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity funding, according to City Engineer Joe Evers.

The Elgin City Council also allocated $1.5 million in local funds to bring the total budget to $10.5 million.

Last year, IHC Construction Companies was selected to represent the city as the construction manager for the project. The project is expected to be completed sometime in November or December of this year, added Evers.

Eight decades ago, an Elgin mayor proposed a bold plan for the redevelopment of the Fox River. That dream -- although sidelined by the economy and changing priorities -- is finally becoming a reality.

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