A downtown Wheaton plaza is essentially a large water fountain with some tables and not much else.
But a concept by urban design architects re-imagines the space with a permanent timeline of the city's history, new seating and tall columns that would support outdoor lighting. Those vertical elements are inspired by an old portico for Wheaton's historic train station.
"We feel that the influence of the railroad is very important to this space," said Jon Brooke, Design Workshop's Chicago office director.
The city-hired firm is working with engineers to revive the gathering spot next to the train tracks as part of a multiyear project to make the downtown more vibrant and accessible. The initial phase focuses on redoing the Robert J. Martin Memorial Plaza and a segment of Front Street, between West and Cross streets.
A majority of city council members expressed support this week for keeping the plaza on the south side of Front Street, siding with a group of downtown business owners who voiced opposition to relocating the special events venue to the north side.
"Passengers on the train riding through there will have a better view of the fountain and other amenities if it's on the south side," Councilman John Rutledge said.
In a letter earlier this month, the Downtown Wheaton Association also called on the council to include a water feature in designs. The group's board of directors cast a unanimous vote recommending the plaza stay where it is.
The redesign of Front Street would serve as a model for later stages of a downtown streetscape project that could cost roughly $35 million. The city could reconfigure parking, widen sidewalks and rebuild streets to encourage foot traffic.
The city council has not yet decided how to fund the project, but roughly two-thirds of the 23 street segments encompassed in the plan fall within a tax increment financing district that's set to expire in December 2022.
In a TIF district, as redevelopment boosts property values, the extra tax revenue that otherwise would go to schools and other taxing bodies can pay for improvements to the area for up to 23 years.
The city could budget a projected $22.5 million in TIF dollars for the project, though that forecast depends on several variables.
But this fall, the city plans to replace deteriorating water mains that run under Front Street. Crews are tentatively set to break ground on that infrastructure work Oct. 2. They should finish by Thanksgiving, Assistant City Manager John Duguay said.
Above ground, the reconstruction of Front between West and Cross streets would not begin until spring 2018, if the council agrees to proceed. New trees, lighting and way-finding signs are among the proposed upgrades.
Streetscape and utility improvements along Front Street could total $6.5 million. That scope now includes replacing the traffic signals at two intersections: Front and West, as well as Front and Main.
Design Workshop and Primera Engineers are next expected to update the council on their progress in four to six weeks.