Libertyville working to make downtown more transit friendly
Given its popularity, no one is suggesting downtown Libertyville needs to go into makeover mode, but village officials want to ensure future plans focus on the Metra commuter rail station as a key asset.
"It's just the next step, if you will," said John Spoden, the village's community development director. "We're trying to take our subarea (comprehensive) plan to the next level."
Last fall, Libertyville landed an $80,000 grant from the Regional Transportation Authority to develop a "transit-oriented development" plan centered on a quarter-mile radius from the station at Milwaukee Avenue and Lake Street. Since 1998, the agency has partnered with several communities, including Mundelein, to increase access to transit and potentially increase ridership.
On Friday, the agency said it would kick off transit-oriented development zoning projects in Brookfield, Evanston, Forest Park and Highwood. The zoning rules are expected to streamline the approval process for future transit-oriented development projects and help reach a "pedestrian and transit-friendly environment that complements the community's character," according to the RTA.
In Libertyville, several steps are in progress, and the project is expected to start in July. Tasks include identifying strengths, weaknesses and opportunities; making land-use recommendations in relation to all modes of transportation, including pedestrians and bicycles; identifying signage and landscaping opportunities; and formulating a strategy to maintain the architectural character of the study area.
Public participation and outreach will be part of what is expected to be a yearlong process that will ultimately produce a step-by-step guide to reach the plan's vision.
"It's not binding, (but) it's truly your vision for that area," Spoden said. The idea is to connect the station to various areas of town, he said.
The village will contribute $20,000 to the effort, with the plan to be prepared by a consultant selected by the RTA. While the agency finalizes that aspect, on May 26 the village took the required step of appointing a steering committee to guide the process.
"I wanted to get this in place so when (the RTA is) ready to go, we're ready to go," Spoden said.
Besides Mayor Terry Weppler and Trustee Scott Adams, the 15-member panel consists of village commissioners, residents, and business and property owners.
One of them is Tom Maegdlin, co-owner of Hansa Coffee Roasters, which opened in fall 2013 across from the train station on the north side of the tracks. Maegdlin is a "coffee trafficker" by trade but said he has a degree in urban geography from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
"The utilization of rail and other forms of transportation are becoming increasingly valuable" to development and redevelopment, he said. "(Hansa) wanted to be on a train line. I'm a big proponent of rail."
In Mundelein, the transit-oriented development plan created in 2004 became a catalyst for several actions and a public investment approaching $25 million. Mundelein's North Central line station opened in 2001.
"We continue to use the plan on an ongoing basis and we have tweaked and refined it over the past 10 years to meet the village's evolving needs," said Amanda Orenchuk, Mundelein's senior planner.
The village acquired about 24 acres in the area and adopted a new zoning ordinance to support transit-oriented development. Construction of the 564-unit Cardinal Square adjacent to the station continues, and a new village hall surrounded by five development spaces opened last year. Mundelein also is pursuing funding for a pedestrian overpass of the tracks to connect commuters to shops and offices.
Orenchuk said the transit-oriented development plan guides every decision made in the area.
While Mundelein is able to craft its new town center, Libertyville's station was located long ago and there is no possibility of widening adjoining streets because of existing buildings.
Spoden said the train station itself and 7 acres known as the Trimm property, just west of the commuter parking lot, are key potential development areas. Trimm is a former industrial area that had issues with soil contamination. To settle a legal dispute, the village approved an agreement with the owner to develop as many as 130 condos or townhouses in exchange for property to provide 200 commuter parking spaces.
Since then, two so-called transit-oriented developments that would have brought in hundreds of new residents were proposed, but neither came to fruition. The first was by Streetscape Development, which built the School Street neighborhood nearby on the east side of Milwaukee Avenue, and the second was by M/I Homes of Naperville.
"If you're looking at developing the Trimm property, show us how it would work with future development of the train station. We don't want an island," Spoden said.
The School Street neighborhood may have been a trigger for a bigger picture look at the area, according to Heather Tabbert, manager of local planning and programs for the RTA.
While Libertyville has a great downtown surrounding the Metra station, the RTA believes there are opportunities to make it more supportive of transit, such as improving access -- particularly pedestrian access -- and new commercial, multifamily or office uses, Tabbert said.
That would attract more businesses and foot traffic to "take advantage of new shops and restaurants and ultimately the region's transit system," she added.