How a forgotten piece of land became Naperville's next big community asset

Where most passers-by would see a forgotten piece of land overrun with weeds, 95th Street Library Manager Karen Dunford saw potential.

The 2.2-acre property separating the library from the Frontier Sports Complex in south Naperville caught her attention as she drove into work one morning about two years ago.

Dunford had just attended a state of the city address, where Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico challenged his audience to “think big.” So as she eyed the site and considered how it could be transformed into a community asset, she thought, “This is my big dream.”

Dunford's vision kick-started plans for what soon will become the 95th Street Community Plaza, a $3.6 million project led by Naperville Park District. A ceremonial groundbreaking, followed by a reception, is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Wednesday at the south end of the library parking lot, 3015 Cedar Glade Drive.

“We have something incredibly special here,” Dunford said. “It's just going to be a wonderful dream come true to have this park next to the library, next to schools and next to all of this commerce.”

True to Dunford's initial proposal, the plaza will connect the library, the sports complex and the Neuqua Valley High School campus, including its freshman center. It also will serve as a link to a cluster of nearby shops and eateries.

The planned amenities, however, are beyond what Dunford could have imagined when she first presented her idea to the park district.

Designed by Hitchcock Design Group, the project will include a band shell and performance lawn, a playground, a splash pad, several plazas, seating areas, restrooms, shade structures and connecting walkways. A parking lot will be installed, and native plants will be restored along the pond shoreline.

The park district met with Naperville stakeholders, spent weeks collecting resident feedback and worked with Hitchcock Design Group to design “what we believe is going to be a phenomenal space for the community for years and years to come,” Executive Director Ray McGury said.

“Two acres in another part of the city probably wouldn't have elicited this type of response from us, (but) this is a really unique setting, a unique area for this land to be in,” he said. “I think this is really an amenity for the entire city.”

The project is being funded by developers' in-lieu fees, he said, as well as a donation from Pulte Homes in collaboration with the Wagner family, landing them the naming rights for the plaza's pavilion.

Contractors already have been clearing and preparing the site, and park district officials expect to be “full steam ahead” in the coming weeks, said Eric Shutes, director of planning. Most of the work will be done by the end of this year, with some finishing touches completed next spring.

The plaza should be fully operational by Memorial Day Weekend 2020, Shutes said.

Both the library and the park district plan to use the new space for programming, such as outdoor storytime, yoga, fitness classes, concerts and children's entertainment. Dunford said she also envisions families strolling along the pathways, teens doing their homework outside, and parents gathering at the benches while their kids play in the splash pad.

“Having dreams and having visions are important, but having those become a reality is really the hard part,” Dunford said. “I can't speak highly enough of what the park district staff and their board of commissioners has done with this. Believe me, it will be one of the most popular destinations down here on the south side.”

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