Unless you're familiar with old railroads, you might not know that a downtown Wheaton retail building was once a train depot.
But a redesign of a nearby plaza along Front Street would evoke that history. Long, double-sided benches bring to mind a train station waiting room. Tall columns on either side of the street would create a gateway to the space, harking back to the original portico where passengers would wait for the train.
As they pay tribute to the past, urban design architects hired by the city also envision contemporary amenities in the plaza. An outdoor fireplace, lighting effects and a permanent canopy would add to the ambience.
"What we're going to end up with is a much more accessible and usable plaza space," said Jon Brooke, Design Workshop's Chicago office director.
He gave an update to the city council this week as his firm refines designs for the Robert J. Martin Memorial Plaza, named in honor of Wheaton's former mayor who served until 1990. The plaza project is one of the highlights of a major reconstruction of a segment of Front Street. With the council's go-ahead, the city could begin rebuilding Front Street next spring, launching the first phase of a multiyear transformation of the downtown streetscape.
The narrow plaza would have to be bulldozed to address sloping on that side of the street and meet accessibility standards, prompting city officials to ask architects to re-imagine the space that hosts special events.
The area now consists of a fountain, flower planters and seating. The design firm has called for replacing the fountain with a "small-scale" water feature that also could hold plants or sculptures. In the final phase of the streetscape project, the city may consider adding a larger water feature in a proposed park on the south side of the tracks along Liberty Drive.
"We know water will be an attractive element, and there isn't a whole lot of space, so what we wanted to try to do is maximize the walking space," Brooke said of the plaza.
One of the goals behind the broader streetscape project is to make the downtown more pedestrian-friendly.
The first stage of the project focuses on Front Street, between West and Cross streets. The city could widen sidewalks, reconfigure parking, install new signs, plant trees and beautify landscaping.
The elements and materials chosen for Front Street could serve as a template for later phases of the project that could cost roughly $35 million, though the council has not yet settled on a scope.
On Oct. 9, Design Workshop is scheduled to give its third update to the city council on streetscape plans for Front Street. The council also will get more precise estimates of the costs for the new plaza and the first phase of the streetscape improvements, Assistant City Manager John Duguay said. The city could seek bids for the work from contractors in mid-January.
Also on Oct. 9, the council will discuss how to pay for the project. 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.
Crews, meanwhile, are tentatively set to break ground on a utility project under Front Street, between West and Cross streets, on Oct. 2. Aging water mains that are 80 to 90 years old will be replaced at a cost of about $1.1 million. That's $200,000 to $300,000 below original estimates, Duguay said.
Traffic would funnel down to one lane. Crews are expected to start the work at Front and West streets near the Metra train station, move down one side of Front and then snake around back to minimize the disruption for shops and restaurants.
The city expects the infrastructure work will be complete before Thanksgiving.