Wheaton begins massive downtown beautification effort

Wheaton officials broke ground Friday on a major downtown streetscape project as business owners brace for a summer of construction just outside their storefronts.

The ceremony ushered in the start of extensive improvements to the downtown's roads, public spaces and overall ambience. The project could take more than $30 million and four years to complete as the city works to replace aging utility infrastructure and revitalize the central business district.

The beautification effort this summer will concentrate on a five-block stretch of Front Street. Under that same segment last fall, the city replaced aging water mains and sanitary sewers to lay the groundwork for the streetscape transformation - the result of years of planning.

"So this is where it gets pretty exciting," Assistant City Manager John Duguay told a group of elected officials and architects from a city-hired Chicago firm, Design Workshop.

The gathering met at a downtown plaza along a Front Street already prepared for construction: Traffic has funneled down to one lane, contractors have mobilized bulldozers, trees have been cut down and signs have been installed to direct drivers to parking.

Business leaders, meanwhile, have proactively tried to stem the loss of patrons turned off by construction. The Downtown Wheaton Alliance, a group of shops and restaurants, has sent mailers with promotional coupons to thousands of households and last week launched its "Oh, Yes You Can …" campaign to reinforce the message that businesses still will be catering to customers during the project.

"The majority of our businesses here are small independent operators and we need that continued support, especially during this construction period," Executive Director Paula Barrington said. "All the storefronts are accessible and will remain accessible during the whole process. You can still drive down the street and you can also find parking."

The city is allowing patrons to park in spaces that are typically reserved for permitted drivers in municipal lot No. 4 on the north side of Liberty Drive between Main and Hale streets. Permit holders will park in the Wheaton Place garage in the interim.

Earlier this month, the city council awarded a $4.5 million contract to Landmark Contractors Inc. to complete the Front Street phase of the multiyear project. The Huntley-based firm submitted the lowest bid at roughly $860,000 below a previous $5.4 million estimate.

Crews typically will work from 7 a.m. through 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. The city plans to keep at least one lane of Front from West to Cross streets open to traffic, though there will be occasions that will require a full closure.

The construction company contract requires crews to install temporary sidewalks that patrons will enter from intersections to access shops and restaurants. That access will be cut off on days when crews are pouring concrete.

General contractors must complete the Front Street work by Aug. 31 or pay the city a $3,500 penalty each day the project extends beyond that deadline.

Business owners acknowledge some pain involved with the project. Crews will reconstruct the pavement between Main and Hale streets and resurface the pavement on other segments.

But businesses are trying to keep the focus on the end result: a Front Street with wider, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, reconfigured parking, new lighting, landscaping and the replacement of a plaza with a space featuring an outdoor fireplace, a water feature and seating on the other side of the road closest to storefronts.

Many of the trees downtown are stunted because their roots don't have enough room to grow. To address that issue, crews will dig a trench - averaging six feet wide - on each side of Front Street except for the intersections and fill the channel with structural soil designed to help trees take root and develop a lush canopy.

With roomier sidewalks, Donna Hesik, owner of Suzette's Creperie and the association's board president, said her French bistro could add more outdoor summer dining tables. Through the end of August, her restaurant is offering three-course meals for $30.

"I just think that the whole new look is going to draw new people to downtown," she said. "It's going to be a rough summer. We all admit that, but we're looking forward to what's going to be good at the end."

Wheaton set to break ground next month on downtown streetscape project

Ceremony to launch Wheaton's downtown revitalization

  Assistant City Manager John Duguay is overseeing the beautification effort as Wheaton's project manager. Bev Horne/
  The Robert J. Martin Memorial Plaza, an event venue named in honor of Wheaton's former mayor who served until 1990, will be demolished and replaced with a new gathering space on the north side of Front Street. Bev Horne/
  City-hired contractors have mobilized equipment in preparation for a summer of construction work along a stretch of Front Street between West and Cross streets. Bev Horne/
With a nod to the city's railroad history, small, movable carts filled with plants and connected with chains would sit on tracks embedded in the walkway, acting as a barrier between the street and a new gathering space at Front and Main streets. Courtesy of the City of Wheaton
Plans by Design Workshop call for creating a new gathering space in downtown Wheaton this summer with overhead lighting, movable tables and fire and water features. Courtesy of the City of Wheaton
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