Wheaton planning new Front Street gathering space instead of plaza redo

Updated 10/10/2017 7:32 AM
  • Wheaton officials are scrapping plans to redo a downtown plaza and instead expect to create a new gathering space along the north side of Front Street.

      Wheaton officials are scrapping plans to redo a downtown plaza and instead expect to create a new gathering space along the north side of Front Street. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer, July 2016

State restrictions are derailing plans to rebuild a downtown Wheaton plaza near the railroad tracks as part of a $34.7 million revitalization of the city's central business district.

Architects hired by the city had re-imagined the plaza on the south side of Front Street with a space inspired by railroad history. Double-sided benches were meant to evoke a train station waiting room. Tall columns on either side of the street would create a gateway to the new plaza, harking back to an original portico where passengers would wait for the train.

But as owner of the plaza site, Union Pacific has informally told the city that the railroad might not sign off that southside concept because of state regulations.

Those Illinois Commerce Commission rules dictate that nothing in the railroad's right of way can stand higher than 3 feet tall within 500 feet of a grade crossing, among other limitations.

"We sent them drawings to take a look at, and we're waiting for a specific response on that from the drawings," City Manager Mike Dzugan said of Union Pacific.

The city could seek exemptions with the state commission. But council members agreed Monday to direct Design Workshop architects to develop an alternative space on the north side of Front Street.

In August, a majority of council members expressed support for keeping the plaza on the south side of Front Street, siding with the Downtown Wheaton Association, a group of business owners who voiced opposition to relocating the special events venue to the north side, closest to shops.

Leaving the narrow plaza as-is isn't an option because the city is planning a reconstruction of Front Street next year and sloping in that area doesn't meet accessibility standards, officials say. Since the plaza would have to be bulldozed as part of that roadwork, the city tasked architects with redesigning the Robert J. Martin Memorial Plaza, named in honor of Wheaton's former mayor who served until 1990.

Architects will now go back to the drawing board with a north-side concept. Despite the revisions, the new gathering space would still be slated for construction along with a transformation of the streetscape on a segment of Front Street starting in spring 2018.

Design Workshop has laid out a multiyear plan to turn the business district into a vibrant destination with new gathering spaces, signs, landscaping, rebuilt streets and wider sidewalks.

The building materials chosen for Front Street will serve as a template for later stages of the project, which could cost nearly $35 million, though the council has not yet settled on a scope.

Construction crews broke ground last month on a $1.1 million water main and sanitary sewer project under a stretch of Front Street, ushering in the larger-scale effort to give the downtown more of a distinctive identity.

Dzugan said Monday it's "satisfying" to see crews begin the infrastructure project -- running from Front and West streets near the Metra station to Front and Cross streets near the Wheaton 121 apartment complex -- after years of planning.

Contractors are on track to finish the work to replace aging water mains and sanitary sewers by Nov. 17, or the weekend before Thanksgiving.

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