Aurora embraces Fox River in its revitalization efforts
First of a weekly series on Fox River towns and what they're doing to showcase the river.
Aurora is Illinois' second-largest city, an industrial community at heart with mill-town roots, the City of Lights.
But as downtown revitalization efforts increasingly focus on another element of Aurora's heritage, the city is renewing its connection to the waterway that flows through it, and possibly gaining a new identity.
“Aurora is a river town. We can't turn our backs on who we are, and the river is part of who we are,” said Jeff Noblitt, president of Aurora Downtown and spokesman for Waubonsee Community College. “The river is what makes us distinctive.”
The Fox River is being called a conduit, a catalyst, a connector, even a centerpiece in downtown Aurora, where the new RiverEdge Park highlights a number of efforts to make better use of the shoreline.
Waubonsee, the Aurora Public Library, at least two private developers, and the city itself have projects under way or recently completed that incorporate the river, the natural amenity that first brought settlers to the area more than 175 years ago.
Leaders say efforts to clean up industrial brownfields along the Fox River began decades ago, but only inched along until recently.
Since the mid-2000s, the Fox Valley Park District demolished two maintenance facilities along the river, the city built the first phase of RiverEdge Park, Waubonsee revitalized an entire block with its new downtown campus and riverside streets have been improved with two-way traffic, new Downer Place bridges and meter-less parking.
Some say all this action signals a shift in thinking about the purpose of the Fox River.
“It's no longer a place to put your Dumpsters behind your buildings. You want to open it up,” Noblitt said. “We're trying to do things to have that urban feel really mesh with a beautiful natural environment.”
First, clean up
Tom Weisner, elected Aurora's mayor in 2005, says riverside cleanup was going on long before he took office, but his administration has been “extremely aggressive” and made it a priority.
In 2007, the city council authorized spending $720,000 to remove 30-foot piles of tires and other debris at a former used car lot along Broadway Avenue on the river's east bank, just north of the current RiverEdge Park.
“That's an area that was taken from the worst possible use and condition toward something that could be really nice in the future,” Weisner said about the 2.5-acre site.
Aurora also teamed with ComEd for environmental remediation to clean up the site of RiverEdge Park, the $18.5 million outdoor concert venue that opened last month at 360 N. Broadway Ave. Later phases will revitalize Wilder Park on the west bank and connect the two sides with a bridge for bikers and walkers.
Farther south, the park district in late 2010 demolished two maintenance buildings along the west bank in South River Street Park, opening up that section.
Major investments along the Fox River date back at least to Hollywood Casino, a $70 million venue that opened in June 1993. Substantial renovations have been made to the 1930s-era art deco Paramount Theatre, and the 100-year-old bridges that carry traffic over both channels of the Fox River and Stolp Island were rebuilt for $6.8 million.
But RiverEdge Park, the 2-year-old downtown Aurora campus of Sugar Grove-based Waubonsee Community College, and a new main branch of the Aurora Public Library now under construction are the most significant building projects along the river.
The projects combine to create a downtown district centered on the Fox that focuses on artistic, educational and entertainment uses, says library board member John Savage.
“A good blend of cultural and educational activity is becoming the hub of the downtown,” Savage said. “It's really starting to have some critical mass.”
The library broke ground in May on a $28 million, 92,000-square-foot building that aims to provide relevant technology along with more room for public gatherings and small group study.
One block west of the river, Savage says, the new library will connect well with neighboring SciTech Hands-on Museum, which added a cafe and began offering a science, technology, engineering and math-focused preschool.
The library also will offer resources to students at Waubonsee's new campus, a $50 million, 132,000-square-foot facility that opened in June 2011 at 18. S. River St. The facility already has brought more people to the river's edge, as enrollment has grown 30 percent, to 10,261 students, since the new campus opened.
Waubonsee's new building and many riverside projects are incorporating rain gardens, outdoor plazas, permeable pavers and other “green” features to highlight and preserve the quality of the Fox River, Noblitt said.
“The campus itself is a beautiful new green space for the city,” he said. “It totally embraces the Fox River.”
Restaurants and housing may be the last pieces of Aurora's riverfront revitalization puzzle, but developers say they're on the way.
In February, the city council agreed to give a “Restaurant Row” on West New York Street another go, promising up to $750,000 in reimbursements for Aurora resident and developer Vernon LaVia. An attempt to bring several restaurants to the street beginning in 2009 was unsuccessful, but LaVia now is building three restaurant spaces, a deck, an outdoor plaza, a building addition and four apartments at 29 and 31-33 W. New York St.
Aliano's Ristorante of Batavia plans to occupy two of the restaurant spaces, opening a fine dining Italian restaurant and a separate pizzeria. Chef Amaury's at 33 W. New York St. and the other new restaurants will be able to offer outdoor dining on the plaza, and LaVia said the development should be complete in seven to 12 months.
“It really will be right-on-the-riverfront dining,” he said.
More space for riverfront living should be on the way as well, as two attached buildings used by Waubonsee between 1986 and the 2011 opening of its new campus were sold to Gorman and Co. for development of apartments and stores. The buildings sit on Stolp Island, surrounded by the Fox River.
Mayor Weisner said Aurora will stay true to its urban — not suburban — roots as developers look to offer more housing along the river.
“We'll be proud and happy to go vertical,” Weisner said. “It leaves a lot more open land, public land and open vistas to the river so that more people can enjoy that as well.”
With the Fox River at the center of downtown developments in recreation, entertainment, culture, education and dining, many feel the area is experiencing a rebirth.
“Renaissance is a word that gets tossed around a lot,” Waubonsee's Noblitt said. “But I think this is a true renaissance for downtown Aurora.”
Downtown Aurora is no longer turning its back to the Fox River as the area redevelops. Here are a couple recently completed projects — and a couple in progress — that are making better use of riverfront land.
RiverEdge Park, 360 N. Broadway Ave.
A $13.2 million, 10-acre Music Garden at the park opened June 14 featuring a repaved Fox River trail, a boat launch and native plantings along with a stage and seating for 8,500.
Waubonsee Community College, 18. S. River St.
The $50 million, 132,000-square-foot building replaced a smaller campus on Stolp Island when it opened in June 2011. The new facility features an upper and a lower riverwalk, permeable pavers, rain gardens and bioswales to filter water before it trickles into the Fox River and a white roof to decrease cooling costs.
Aurora Public Library, southwest corner of River and Benton streets
The library is constructing a $28 million, 92,000-square-foot main branch one block west of the river to include more technology, computer labs, quiet study spaces and public meeting rooms.
Restaurant Row, 0-100 block of West New York Street
Aurora resident Vernon LaVia is building three restaurant spaces, a deck, an outdoor plaza for riverfront dining and four apartments at 29 and 31-33 W. New York St. Another restaurant and a tavern are interested in other available spaces on the block.