See if this sounds familiar: A medium-sized Chicago suburb with a failed regional mall desperately wants to redevelop that mall into an economic engine. The mall property is privately held, and the community has little actual control over what happens to it, beyond reviewing plans the owner submits to the village. The longer the status quo drags on, the more of an eyesore the mall becomes.
I could be describing The Plaza at 95th Street and Western Avenue in Evergreen Park. I could also be describing the Charlestowne Mall at North Avenue and Kirk Road in St. Charles. Both malls are struggling, both towns are seeking solutions for them. There's one big difference, though. St. Charles is proactively coming up with potential plans for the site. Thus far – publicly, at least – Evergreen Park seems content to wait for a proposal from a developer.
Actually, the options laid out by consulting firm Houseal Lavigne are part of a broader consideration of economic and planning issues facing St. Charles' primary east side industrial and retail area, known at the East Gateway Subarea. So not only is St. Charles actively soliciting options for revitalizing its mall, it's doing so within the context of a broader economic and development plan.
Read the full St. Charles plan by clicking on the PDF to the right.
St. Charles is not Evergreen Park. However the fact that St. Charles is planning in this manner is instructive. In the Tribune story, the village's community development director Rita Tungare said, "All we can do is establish a vision. This may seem unrealistic today, it may seem futuristic in some ways. It's not saying the city is going to go out and purchase all this property. But it looks beyond today to what could be in 10, 15, 20 years."
That kind of approach is critical for towns in a competitive and challenging economic environment.
Not all of the St. Charles plan is as forward-thinking as that quote might lead you to believe. The overall plan for the so-called Main Street corridor (Route 64/North Avenue) still predicts a car-centric future, which I think is not as likely as it once was. But looking at the plan for the Charlestowne Mall specifically offers some interesting ideas, potentially, for the Plaza. They are ideas we have contemplated in this space before.
The meat of the mall proposals is on page 7. One would preserve much of the existing mall but convert the main east-west axis of the mall to a street. Another would segment the mall into retail and entertainment/events uses. The third option is to me the most intriguing. It imagines a town center, with street access throughout the site bringing people into a central town square. Unfortunately, Houseal Lavigne seems to downplay the benefits – preserving the primary tenant spaces as anchors around which other space can be built and the creation of a central community space – while playing up the disruption to the existing mall and the lack of improvement of the appearance from "primary corridors" North Avenue and Kirk Road.
The mall should be intruded upon. Little about regional indoor malls holds any promise for the future. Tearing down the meat of a mall to build a town center to me is a great trade. As for how the mall would look from the "primary corridors," that can be addressed with separate development along those corridors. The purpose of a town center isn't to look appealing from an arterial street, it's to provide an economic, social and residential heart for a community.
St. Charles already has a vibrant downtown. Redevelopment of the east side would merely complement that. Evergreen Park needs a downtown, and the area needs a town center. The village could do worse than contemplating something similar to what St. Charles has done here with this plan and the accompanying feasibility study. Do these things cost money? Yes. But it can also be costly not to do it.