Wheaton's downtown has the space and infrastructure to accommodate growth, but a new report to be accepted by city officials Monday says work needs to be done to make the city a destination for both retailers and residents in the decades to come.
Among the key improvements that planners believe will bolster downtown are the creation of "festival streets" along Liberty, Hale and Karlskoga; creation of a central park; upgrades to the popular French Market; and redevelopment of Main Street from Roosevelt Road north to the railroad tracks.
City council members Monday will receive the $64 million Wheaton Downtown Strategic and Streetscape Plan, a nearly two-year planning effort aimed at keeping the downtown area a vital place to work, shop, play and live for the next 20 years.
"When we started this process nearly two years ago, we were looking for ideas and suggestions to improve the central business district and the downtown to make the city a more unique and attractive place," City Manager Don Rose said. "A very important factor in the market analysis is that the area is not expecting any major population booms. That means we need to create an atmosphere worthy of attracting people and, effectively, stealing them from other locations."
The market study projects downtown Wheaton, primarily south of the Union Pacific tracks, has the potential to add a net increase of 80,000 square feet of retail space; 50,000 to 75,000 square feet of office space; and around 1,000 residential units over the next two decades. It recommends the city actively promote such redevelopment.
Initially, the plan suggests the city should focus on sprucing up and redeveloping Main Street, from downtown's "front door" at Roosevelt Road north to Front Street. Doing so, planners say, likely will help stimulate redevelopment on the south side of the tracks and take advantage of the area's proximity to the new Mariano's Fresh Market at Main Street and Roosevelt Road.
"There are some viable businesses along that corridor, no doubt, but there are areas the plan identifies as a bit of hodgepodge that could be spruced up," Rose said. "(Main and Roosevelt) has been a gateway to the point we've put up stone entrance identifiers on both sides of the street. But it is a rather nondescript area that could use some inviting visual experiences."
As for streetscape recommendations, the plan suggests the city invest in upgrades necessary to make Liberty, Hale and Karlskoga operate as "festival" streets that would accommodate improved outdoor dining and could easily be closed to traffic to host a variety of community festivals and events.
The plan also recommends the city create a central park between Liberty Drive and the Illinois Prairie Path, and between Hale and Cross streets. The park would serve as a central gathering place for the community and could include a small amphitheater, an ice-skating rink, open spaces and fountains.
The eastern portion of the park, in the block between Main and Cross and north of Liberty, could include a permanent structure for the French Market to allow the popular market to operate year-round.
The 129-page plan goes on to make recommendations for everything from street lighting to tree plantings to the style of garbage cans.
While the plan is thorough and likely to be unanimously accepted Monday, Rose cautioned that receiving it is only the first step.
"Receiving the plan is one thing and the next step will be getting out a chart and lining up everything and selecting internally what the priorities should be," Rose said. "After Monday, I imagine the council will reach out and get input from both the (Wheaton) Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Wheaton Association regarding contents of the plan."
Paula Barrington, executive director of the Downtown Wheaton Association, said she is still reviewing the plan but found several recommendations, including the French Market improvements and the festival streets, "very exciting."
"Our French Market is one of the top markets in Chicago and has a vendor waiting list a mile long. That alone justifies investments in that market," she said. "And festival streets are a great concept for adding public gathering space."
While the city and its budget ultimately will decide which projects get done and in what order, Rose said he's expecting to work in tandem with Barrington and chamber officials to prioritize items.
"Having a plan is a smart way to keep our city vibrant, attractive and on the map as a destination," Barrington said. "Our organization appreciates the fact that the city is looking to the future of downtown. We are blessed to have the city's attention and we're confident their interests coincide with what we want to see as we evolve with the changing times."