Naperville council nixes downtown streetscape project from 2021 budget
A multimillion-dollar streetscape project in the heart of downtown Naperville is being postponed to mitigate the burden on businesses already struggling under COVID-19 restrictions.
Initially slated for completion last spring, the $3.2 million in proposed improvements -- plus an additional $2.2 million in related utility work -- were delayed a year due to the challenges and uncertainties of the pandemic, officials said.
But after hearing resounding opposition from concerned residents and distressed business owners, the city council decided to remove funding for the construction project from the 2021 budget.
"I think they know it needs to happen. There's a number of them who want it to happen and think it'll help their businesses," Councilman Patrick Kelly said. "But they're really worried they won't survive and they won't be around to enjoy the benefit of the streetscape if we do it next spring -- that it will just flat out put them out of business."
The road, sidewalk and utility upgrades are needed to beautify and improve accessibility along portions of Jefferson Avenue, South Main Street and Jackson Avenue, city officials said. Delaying the project again means it likely won't move forward until 2024, after the upcoming reconstruction of the Washington Street bridge is finished.
During a budget workshop this week, several community members said the improvements would be worth the wait if it means reducing the potential strain on business owners. Heading into 2021, the pandemic's devastation on the local economy remains evident, they said, and a monthslong construction project deterring traffic from the area would only make matters worse.
"I really believe that the pain of this project is much greater than the gain. At least, that's coming through loud and clear from the downtown business community," said Katie Wood, executive director of the Downtown Naperville Alliance. "Businesses, I do fear, would close, and no one wants to see jobs or livelihoods or our beloved businesses go."
Mayor Steve Chirico said he feared the infrastructure improvement plans would never come to fruition if the council didn't pull the trigger now. If additional federal relief comes through, he said, the funding could help small businesses make it through the rough patch and emerge with a "brand new, beautiful streetscape."
"If we miss this one more time, it's really a disservice to our community," Chirico said.
But restaurateur Chris Mason, who owns Allegory on South Main Street, said local businesses can't risk another "substantial hurdle" while they're already struggling to stay afloat.
"Everyone is terrified," he said, adding that he collected 55 signatures from business owners, managers and employees opposed to the project.
If approved, the construction project would have begun March 1 and extended through mid-July, said Bill Novack, transportation, engineering and development director. Council members said that timeline eats into prime weather for outdoor dining, which has been a lifeline for restaurants and bars during the pandemic.
"There's never going to be a good time," Kelly said. "But I sort of agree that this would be the worst time."