Naperville looking to build outdoor office along Riverwalk

Plans are progressing for an outdoor office setup that could turn the Naperville Municipal Center into a place for on-the-go workers to get things accomplished without stepping inside.

With Wi-Fi, power plugs, tables, chairs, benches and shade, the outdoor tech plaza could be filled on pleasant days with mobile employees reading emails, making phone calls, conducting meetings or developing presentations.

Mayor Steve Chirico said he sees the idea, which he announced at his State of the City address in March, as both an amenity along the city's popular Riverwalk and a strategy to strengthen economic development.

Bringing in technology companies is a chicken-and-egg problem for a city such as Naperville, in a region where some major employers are moving to Chicago instead of the suburbs to attract young, tech-savvy employees.

So should Naperville bring young workers to town in hopes the businesses will follow? Or attract hip businesses, knowing workers will want to live nearby? Chirico says the answer is yes, and the tech plaza helps on both fronts.

"We're trying to create space, workspace, that fits the lifestyle of millennials and the next generation - the way that they like to work, the way they're comfortable working - so we can attract that workforce," Chirico said. "Also that will help for us to attract new businesses."

An outdoor office plaza in the works for north side of the Naperville Municipal Center is expected to bring Wi-Fi, power plugs, seating and shade for people and groups who want a place to work in nature. Courtesy of Hitchcock Design Group

The plaza is being laid out by Hitchcock Design Group with seating for roughly 50 to 60 people.

Some of the seating will be in large pods where groups of a dozen or so could conduct outdoor meetings, possibly as an extension of the indoor meeting room available for rent at the city and at the new Hotel Indigo in the nearby Water Street District, said Geoff Roehll, principal and senior vice president at Hitchcock Design Group and chairman of the city's Riverwalk Commission.

Other seating options will include benches and smaller pods where up to four people can work.

Roehll said the plaza will be solar-powered by panels on the roof of the municipal center and will offer USB outlets and plugs for chargers of laptops and cellphones.

Chirico said he is seeking donations to the Riverwalk Foundation to cover the project's $400,000 estimated cost. He said he has sponsors committed for roughly $300,000 and he plans to meet with others soon who could take care of the rest.

While city tax dollars wouldn't fund the installation of the tech plaza, Chirico said taxpayers would be responsible for maintaining it, at a cost he estimates to be roughly $2,000 a year.

The money would be pooled into a fund to pay for replacement of the seating, tables and shade structures in 20 or 30 years when they wear out. It would be in addition to the estimated $6,000 Chirico said the city spends each year maintaining the grassy area between its headquarters and the Riverwalk with things like snow plowing, lawn mowing, landscaping and lighting.

The future need for city funds to support the outdoor office center is why the council will take a vote before any construction begins.

Along the northern wall of the Naperville Municipal Center, the city is planning an outdoor workspace with new tables, chairs, benches, plants, shade structures, Wi-Fi and electricity for on-the-go workers. Courtesy of Hitchcock Design Group

But before the council can weigh in, Chirico and Roehll said one more technicality has to be addressed. The city and the Riverwalk Commission need to draw a map.

The map would define the borders of the Riverwalk, which is maintained by the park district under an intergovernmental agreement with the city, and the borders of adjacent land that isn't officially part of the path.

The map would make it clear the land for the new tech plaza is the city's to maintain, should the amenity get built.

"It's a fair question for council and the taxpayers, 'How is this going to be in terms of long-term cost?'" Chirico said. "The amenity that we get as residents and the city, is that worth the additional cost of maintenance? ... I think it's going to be."

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