How a vacant lot in Mundelein could become a cool gathering place

It doesn't look like much now, but Mundelein Mayor Steve Lentz has a grand, communal vision for the grassy lot on Park Street east of Route 45, right in the heart of the downtown district.

"Have you ever gone to a destination dining area (in) a town, walked around and wished there was a place to sit down and relax?" Lentz said. "Well, this should be that place. Parents could sit down and relax while the kids have room to play."

Occupying about 4,000 square feet at 22 E. Park St., the lot is on the same stretch of roadway that's closed to automobile traffic this summer so restaurants there can serve customers alfresco.

The village's plans call for picnic benches and tables, climbable furniture for kids, a paved pad for food trucks or food kiosks, overhead lighting and other elements.

Officials hope to create a public venue that complements the outdoor dining area and is its own attraction.

"This lot is intended to be enjoyed by the public with no obligation to patronize a specific business," Village Planner Colleen Malec said. "I think this lot has potential to create a villagewide ripple effect by uplifting the identity, appearance, and activity level at the heart of downtown Mundelein."

How it started

Outdoor dining on Park Street began last year to help the eateries on the block - Tina G's, the Park Street Restaurant and Area Coffee - make money during the COVID-19 crisis. Portable barriers keep cars away.

Similar efforts launched in Arlington Heights, St. Charles, Wheaton and other suburbs.

When the weather has been good, Park Street has been popular with diners.

"I've been down to Park Street on many nights, and on a beautiful night, it's packed from one end to the other," Trustee Kerston Russell said during last week's village board meeting. "Music going. Food flowing. People enjoying themselves."

And it's not attracting just locals. Russell said he's met people from Naperville, Mount Prospect and elsewhere.

"We actually have created a destination within our town for people to come and spend their time," he said. "(It's) just wonderful."

The vacant lot hasn't really been utilized during activities on Park Street, however.

That's where a North Carolina planning and design engineering firm called Kimley-Horn and Associates comes in.

The village hired the company, which has offices in the Chicago area, to design seating, tables and other amenities for the lot. The pad for food trucks and food kiosks would allow other businesses to participate in the Park Street experience, Lentz said, not just the ones on the block.

"One criticism I've received from a few residents is that this public investment appears to benefit just a few businesses," he said. "We envision this lot as a flex space that will enable other businesses to participate in this dining destination."

The lot already has one prominent feature - a large mural about Mundelein that's on the east side of the Area Coffee building.

The next step

Last week, the village board approved a new contract with Kimley-Horn for a limited study of the area's topography and utilities, as well as assorted construction documents. The company will be paid $29,500 for that work.

Kimley-Horn is no stranger to Mundelein. It's worked on a medley of public projects in town, including new entryway signs and the current conversion of a former guitar factory on Courtland Street into a public park. Not all of its Mundelein projects have been hits. In 2019, the firm was commissioned to develop a plan for a park at Diamond Lake. But trustees scuttled the effort after its scope and costs rose beyond initial expectations.

Kimley-Horn's Daniel Grove, the Park Street project's senior manager, said his team is excited about this latest venture.

"We always have a strong passion for this type of work - place-making and enhancement of community spaces," Grove said. "It helps that a key member of our team (project manager Amanda Folta) is from Mundelein, which provides us a unique perspective and strengthens our commitment to this work."

The overall development of the lot is expected to cost $75,000 to $100,000, Village Administrator Eric Guenther said. The entire Park Street project is expected to cost the village $300,000.

U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider, a Deerfield Democrat whose district includes downtown Mundelein, is seeking federal funds to support the effort.

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  Tina G's Cafe server Audrey Kafka wipes rainwater from the outdoor tables at the restaurant. It's one of three Park Street eateries offering outdoor dining. Paul Valade/
  Picnic tables are set up on the vacant lot at 22 E. Park St. in Mundelein. Plans are in the works to develop the property. Paul Valade/
As seen in this preliminary artwork, Mundelein officials envision adding an overhead gateway sign and other features to the stretch of Park Street that's closed for outdoor dining. Courtesy of Mundelein
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