Buffalo Grove ponders downtown plans
Buffalo Grove Village President Jeff Braiman stands in the municipal campus where a new proposed downtown area would be located. The plan for 60 acres would convert the municipal campus and a portion of the golf course into retail, residential and open public space. The Village Hall and other municipal buildings would be relocated in the proposed downtown. | Ryan Pagelow~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:24AM
BUFFALO GROVE — Nothing has been approved, and the review process could take months.
But as Buffalo Grove leaders consider building the community’s first-ever downtown, officials will likely factor in not only the improvements that counterparts in cities with traditional downtowns wish they could make, but the strength of old buildings those counterparts say they could not do without.
“It’s the core of our community,” said Pam Hume, executive director of MainStreet Libertyville, the group tasked with keeping that community’s 1870s-era downtown vibrant.
Earlier this month, the Buffalo Grove Village Board received its first public look at a proposal from CRM Properties Group, Ltd., which wants to buy about 65 acres of the village-owned campus — covering the Village Hall, police station and nine holes of the Buffalo Grove Golf Course — tear everything down and rebuild it with three residential towers, chain retail stores and restaurants, office space, a movie theater, a parking garage and green space. St. Mary’s Church would not be touched under the proposal.
The idea of creating a modern downtown brings up multiple questions. What aspects of traditional downtowns should planners avoid? What are the timeless must-haves? Answers depend on many variables, including technology, traffic designs, architecture, public works capacities and consumer preferences.
In Park Ridge, officials had long lists on both sides.
“I think there’s a lot of things that work well,” Park Ridge City Planner Jon Branham said about his town’s historic Uptown area. “Some core features are still in use.”
The Park Ridge downtown features The Pickwick Theatre, an art deco-style theater built in 1928 for live events and films. Across the street, though, is the modern design of the triangular western corner of Northwest Highway and Touhy Avenue.
In 2007, developers tore out the entire block and rebuilt with a mixed use of chain retail and restaurants on the street level with residential housing in the two stories above.
Difficulties included how to design it into existing streets and railroad tracks. Another struggle is the aging infrastructure buried below street level. Sarah Mitchell, Park Ridge’s engineer, said the wish list for new infrastructure included a lot of taken-for-granted technology not yet invented in the 1800s.
Much of the water main is lead pipes, while others made of cast iron and are undersized break easily.
“Those are almost impossible to repair,” she said, and, if she had the chance, would be replaced by PVC.
There also are made-from-brick tunnels that connect the sewer system to the stormwater runoff system. It was easy to build the two entirely separate functions into one system in the 19th century, she said, but managing it today can be nightmarish in a heavy rain.
In Evanston, crews are spending the summer on Church Street, one of its downtown’s main thoroughfares, upgrading building facades and adding a bicycle lane.
It is the latest in a decade of major changes for that city, where old buildings have been razed and rebuilt into high-rise, mixed-use structures, two multistory parking garages have emerged, and anchor retailers have either disappeared or relocated, leaving vacancies for owners and officials to fill.
“We’re trying to get more entertainment, performing arts uses,” City Planner Dennis Marino said. “I’d like to create and incentivize more music, as well.”
Libertyville’s downtown has not gone through major redevelopments, but Mayor Terry Weppler said it has still gone through a lot of change.
“Years ago, you could have fired a cannon down the middle of Milwaukee and not hit anything,” he said.
He and Hume said the community has come back to life on the strength of independent, locally owned businesses, noting the owners of downtown properties take good care of them.
“I wouldn’t change anything about our downtown,” Weppler said. “We keep a nice mix.”
Libertyville did set up a parking structure on the north side of downtown in recent years, and there are plans to build a second one on the south side.
Hume spoke of the importance of the downtown’s wide sidewalks — something that CRM’s plans would expand upon in Buffalo Grove, with several 20-foot “wide walks.”
“You can walk to restaurants, walk to shops, walk to the library,” she said. “It’s a boulevard, because you don’t feel quite so close to the cars.”
Evanston, Libertyville and Park Ridge, though, all have downtowns built around train depots. Buffalo Grove did no get a Metra stop until the 1900s, and it is about 2.5 miles northeast of the municipal campus site.
“It’s a competitive advantage to have rapid transit serving a downtown,” said Marino, noting that Evanston plans everything with its commuter train stops but added that city-centers can succeed without rail.
Marino called the idea of building a city’s nucleus from scratch “fascinating” and said he would be watching Buffalo Grove. In Libertyville, Weppler said he hoped advancement in Buffalo Grove would mean a stronger economy throughout the northwest suburbs.
Buffalo Grove Village President Jeff Braiman said that as the village begins sketching its downtown vision, officials must learn from mistakes made when the Town Center was built about 30 years ago.
He recalled trustees taking a heavy-handed approach in deciding which retailers would fit best in the development at state Route 83 and Buffalo Grove Road.
“The Board approved certain users and did not for others,” said Braiman, highlighting a decision to seek a white tablecloth eatery instead of approving a Chili’s restaurant at the site.
In hindsight, Braiman said, that was a mistake. He said those decisions should be left to developers.
“They are the experts,” he said. “We’ve got to rely on them because it’s their dollars anyway. And you need places that people would go to on a daily basis.
“Boards get in trouble when they try to micromanage developments,” he added.
Braiman said the village must also look at failed downtown projects in the region just as much as it studies the successful models.
“We have to learn from everything; not only the successes but the failures too,” he said.