When I saw the news on Patch that the group proposing to redevelop the decaying Plaza shopping center was I couldn't help but be a little excited. After all, this is the property everyone in town, and Beverly for that matter, has been talking about.
The Plaza is falling apart. It is desperately in need of redevelopment, and the village – I won't say desperately needs, but certainly could use the incremental sales and property tax revenue a revitalized Plaza would bring. So this was a big moment, a chance to see the vision of the team that hopes to bring the Plaza back to life.
I went into the meeting wanting to like what I saw. I was willing to give whatever I saw the benefit of the doubt. Just as long as it's not another strip mall, like the to the north, I thought.
"Banal" doesn't begin to describe this proposal. It is an unimaginative strip mall development, the same kind of strip mall you'd see in Bloomingdale, Skokie or Northbrook – all towns where GMX Real Estate Group and Janko Group have developed or redeveloped shopping centers. There are big and little boxes for stores and 700-plus parking spaces. There is nothing in this plan that distinguishes it from any other strip mall, or Evergreen Park from any other town.
I have read the comments from the good readers of this site in response to in which I proposed turning it into a downtown-type area, with a mix of retail, offices and apartments. Many people seemed to focus on the office and apartment portions of the equation, forgetting that having those two elements does not preclude also having retail, including the Trader Joe's and other chain stores everyone seems insistent on driving to Orland Park for. You can have those stores, you just have two or three floors other stuff above them. Traditional town centers have been developed and successfully operated this way for centuries before the advent of the automobile.
I tried and failed to ask the developers at the meeting whether they had considered a more dense development for The Plaza site. I am not a good public speaker. I get nervous in front of crowds and I don't think I explained what I was looking for very well. The developers, who no doubt earnestly believe that this is the highest and best use for this land, patiently tried to answer my question by pointing out again what they see as the benefits of their development: ample safe and convenient surface parking, larger stores toward the rear (west) of the lot, smaller outlot businesses along Western Avenue, the retention of the Carson Pirie Scott store and the addition of a grocery store.
I have no doubt that these people have built some of the finest strip shopping centers around. And I have no doubt they intend to build a fine shopping center on the grave of the old Plaza. I know what we saw Monday night are not the final plans. I believe Mayor James Sexton when he says the village board will not approve a sub-par development. Everyone involved has the best of intentions. Everyone involved wants what's best for Evergreen Park – to get rid of the existing Plaza and to build something that will attract new businesses that will generate more sales and property tax revenue.
So do I, and I don't think another strip mall is what's best for the village in the long-term. The Plaza needs to be redeveloped in a traditional town center fashion, with restored 96th and 97th Streets feeding interior access. It should have sidewalks to accommodate pedestrians from Beverly and adjacent Evergreen Park neighborhoods. It should have garage parking in addition to on-street parking. Let me be clear: We can have all the retail proposed for the strip mall in a nicer package. We don't have to settle for this outdated development model that could be anyplace and respects no place. The developers were clear on Monday night that retailers are interested in locating in a new development at The Plaza. Why not use that fact to leverage a better development that distinguishes Evergreen Park?
We don't have to settle for another strip shopping center. Think about what Western Avenue will look like if this gets approved. You'll go from Chicago, with its development out to the street and small strip malls (also a mistake, I think) to something resembling the distant exurbs from 91st Street to 99th Street, and then back to Chicago. Western will more closely resemble LaGrange Road, both in terms of how it looks and the traffic. It's totally incongruous with the surrounding area.
I implore Mayor Sexton and the village trustees to consider every possible option for denser development within the constraints of the current zoning. Research traditional town centers. Discuss them with the developers. Realize that incorporating office and residential uses broadens and diversifies the tax base. Parking isn't everything. You lose nothing to convenience and gain everything in building something of value that will stand the test of time better than acres of parking and single-use buildings. The only reason I say this, the only reason I care enough to write about it and speak about it is that I care about what gets built here. I am proud to live here and I want to be proud of what we build here.
The Plaza needs to be redeveloped. But proposed plans represent the wrong way to do it.
What do you think? Take our Poll. Should there be another mall developed at 95th and Western, or a different type of development? Tell us why, why not or your suggestions in the comments.