One person suggests that Northbrook should raze its downtown and start from scratch. Another says the downtown needs some cohesiveness of appearance. A third warns that “cohesiveness” might just turn it into Anytown, U.S.A.
These suggestions were among hundreds given for the future of Northbrook’s downtown at a public input meeting at Village Hall Monday night. Attended by roughly 65 people, the meeting launches a weeklong, intensive planning process involving input from residents, business owners, property owners, developers and village staff, with the goal of creating a comprehensive plan for downtown development. The process is led by Teska Associates Inc., a consultant the village hired with .
During the weeklong downtown planning process, consultants and village staff will build on an initial set of goals outlined in Northbrook’s comprehensive plan, which .
“By Thursday, we hope to have the framework of a draft plan for downtown,” said David Schoon, economic development coordinator for the village of Northbrook.
Railroad Crossing, Floodplain And River Could Impede Development
Todd Vanadilok, senior associate with Teska, began the meeting by introducing his firm’s key findings about Northbrook’s downtown. Planners would like to build upon community mainstays like , the , the , the and the and churches.
But Northbrook’s downtown challenges designers with some physical impediments, he said. Among those are the railroad crossing, the fact that the downtown is located in a floodplain, and the presence of the north branch of the Chicago river—a waterway that could also be an asset, according to Vanadilok.
High Downtown Vacancy Rate in Northbrook
Another issue with downtown Northbrook is the vacancies that plague the area, most notably in the former Blockbuster store at Cherry Lane and Meadow Road. According to Vanadilok, Northbrook’s downtown vacancy rate is 14.5%, significantly higher than the average of 9.9% around the Chicago region, while public parking downtown has an average occupancy rate of just 37%.
Although Northbrook’s downtown business vacancy rate is high, the Metra stop downtown is well used, Vanadilok noted. The sees an average of 1,323 riders per day, making it the third most popular stop on the Milwaukee-District North line. Parking in the Metra lot is 98 % occupied, on average.
In the future, Vanadilok predicted that use of the Metra station and downtown could grow. His firm forecasts that Northbrook will see a 31 percent growth in population by 2040, representing 10,197 people and 3,700 housing units. Teska also forecasts that Northbrook could see a 23 percent growth in employment by 2040, and 2.6 million square feet of new commercial development.
“Obviously these numbers vary depending on the study and they also vary depending on how the economy rebounds,” Vanadilok added.
Community Wants More Restaurants, Fewer Banks
Following Vanadilok’s presentation, the roughly 65 people who had gathered in Village Hall split into three groups to discuss land use and design, transportation and economic development.
When it came to economic development, community members stressed that they wanted to fill the empty storefronts with dinner restaurants, entertainment venues and independent businesses. What they didn’t want was more banks or more coffee shops.
Resident Lauri Koretz said Highland Park’s vibrant downtown might be one model the village could emulate.
“They might have all the traffic, but they get the businesses and they get the money,” she said. “People that live in that neighborhood love being able to walk into town. The kids love to hang out there, and it’s not a dangerous place.”
Business Layout Drives Downtown Visitors Nuts
Several people said Northbrook’s downtown area lacked cohesiveness, with no easy pedestrian path from the shops on Cherry Lane to the businesses on Shermer Road. Even getting from the shops on one side of Cherry Lane to the other can be difficult on foot, given the layout of the streets and parking lots.
“I shouldn’t have to get in my car to go from the to ,” said resident Betsy Decker.
The location of the Metra station, and its crossing at street-level is also a nuisance, residents said. According to Teska, the gates are down for approximately 20 minutes out of 60 minutes during the evening rush hour, and can back up traffic for at least a couple of hours afterward.
Crossing the tracks on foot can also be a safety hazard, given the possibility that overeager pedestrians could be struck by a train. Teska associates said that a pedestrian underpass could be a solution, but not everyone liked the idea.
“An underpass, frankly, scares me,” said Koretz. She worried that teenagers might get into trouble in an underpass, causing more harm than good.
Will Riverwalk Concept Hold Water?
In order to create a unified design for the downtown, some residents wondered whether a river walk like Naperville’s was possible. Stores could open up with patios by the river, and the river could be used as a design element to link the shops on Cherry Lane with the ones on Shermer, they suggested.
Other villagers questioned whether a riverwalk would actually be feasible—given it’s something Northbrook has considered before.
In 1998, the village hired a consultant to conduct a feasibility study for a river walk in downtown Northbrook. The proposal called for a path to start at the Northbrook Public Library, pass , continue under Meadow Road between the shopping plaza on Meadow and the businesses on Shermer Road, and wind up crossing the Village Green to Walters Avenue. But the proposal lacked funding and faced roadblocks involving the Metra tracks and the potential of flooding. Trustees finally gave up on the idea in 2004.
Resident Sharon Whitehead said that regardless what design the village comes up with, planners should keep one thing in mind:
“Our community is built for children,” she said. “We really need to remember why we all moved here.”
Other residents reminisced about biking to downtown and the Village Green when they were kids, to go to the Candy Depot or the Country Maid Bakery. Today, they said, they fear there’s too much traffic for children to bike and not enough to draw them to downtown.
“Kids don’t know where ‘downtown Northbrook’ is,” said Koretz.
After three days of meetings with residents, business owners, developers and village staff, Teska will hold one last public session on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. in Village Hall. At that session, the consultants will present a draft plan for downtown and seek more public input on specific concepts.