St. Charles wants 'wow' factor on former police station site

An empty hodgepodge of a building sits desolate in the heart of downtown St. Charles, waiting for a developer's vision to breathe new life into the riverfront property.

The site was home to the city's police department for years before officers moved to their new state-of-the-art headquarters last fall. But where some now see a vacant station that lacked operational efficiency, city leaders see potential.

The prime piece of real estate at 211 N. Riverside Ave. has been identified as the city's next major redevelopment opportunity, a chance to create economic activity on what is otherwise a municipal campus.

When it comes to determining what exactly the project should entail, however, aldermen would prefer to remain open-minded.

St. Charles is preparing to issue a request for proposals, pending city council review and approval. It'll then be up to developers to present their own ideas for the city-owned property and adjacent parcels.

"I have to think that somebody's going to see this and say, 'There's an opportunity here for the downtown,'" Mayor Ray Rogina said.

During a recent workshop, Alderman Dan Stellato warned there is a "very fine line" between providing developers with direction and scaring them off with specific demands. The city council will have a chance to negotiate and get the final say on any project brought forward.

• Which properties are being considered?

The impetus for a potential redevelopment project centers around the police station site and an ancillary parking lot.

The request for proposals is expected to also include the following parcels: one just east of the "core subject property"; a public parking lot immediately south, which is currently used by city hall employees and surrounding businesses; and the open space along the Fox River.

• What would an ideal project look like?

A large-scale, mixed-use development with "wow" factor is preferred over a smaller, single-use concept. Aldermen say they're open to myriad uses, including retail, residential or even a hotel.

Parking has been identified as a key priority. Proposals will need to demonstrate that enough spaces can be created to accommodate the development, as well as replace any existing public parking lost as a result of the project, aldermen said.

• How will the Fox River play a role?

City officials have previously indicated a desire to leave a 60-foot buffer of open space along the riverfront. Developers will have to show how that area could be incorporated into their plans, and whether they think it should be public, private or a mix, said Rita Tungare, community and economic development director.

The city also will make potential developers aware of the proposed Active River Project, a plan developed by community leaders to create various recreational amenities along the Fox River corridor in an attempt to boost tourism. Those improvements are on hold pending financial partnerships, Tungare said, but "we don't want any developer to design a project in a vacuum where at some point it compromises the ability to move forward."

• What will happen to the former police station?

The building likely will be torn down by the city before a developer is chosen. Aldermen said they'd also be OK with completing some preliminary environmental work to improve the site's marketability.

• Will the city offer any financial assistance?

City officials know that any large-scale project is likely to come with a request for incentives, possibly in the form of a pay-as-you-go reimbursement through the creation of a tax increment financing district. But they're not planning to make any offers upfront in the request for proposals.

• What is the time line?

Aldermen are expected to review a draft request for proposals during a committee meeting April 13. Once the city council gives the final OK, it will be issued to potential developers.

Almost every component of the project will be market-driven, from the property sale to desired incentives to the proposed use, Alderman Todd Bancroft said. Given the current state of economic uncertainty, he said, the market "may be very different 12 months from now."

City officials have already received several informal inquiries about the former police station site, Rogina said. Ideally, summer or fall of next year would be a target date to "turn some dirt on this property if everything were to fall into place."

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