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Looking for Something Better

After the Village Board unanimously approved development of a 450,000-square-foot outdoor mall project, we dig a little deeper into the subtext of what that could mean for Evergreen Park.

Dozens of people from Evergreen Park and Chicago's Beverly neighborhood have turned out at public meetings the past two weeks to study and comment on plans for a proposed 450,000-square-foot strip mall on Western Avenue north of the /development.

I have written about developments like this for many years, and the comments and concerns are almost always the same: traffic, especially in neighborhoods and around schools; storm water runoff; and the loss of green space. Many of the comments about this development touched on those themes. But there was also an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the project that extended beyond them, a feeling that this development at this time in this place simply doesn't fit. People wanted better for the village.

Several residents suggested the village should look at redeveloping existing vacant and underused land before plowing under the golf course and erecting new big box retail stores and 1,500 spaces worth of asphalt parking lot. There were calls for sidewalks to make the stores more accessible from nearby neighborhoods. A few worried that the new stores would take business away from other retailers in town, both at the Plaza and along the 95th Street corridor through downtown.

The comments were articulate and thoughtful, and while the speakers thoroughly conveyed their ideas, I couldn't help but think to myself that they only skirted a deeper issue many of us don't possess the language to describe, an ambiguous feeling that such a blatantly suburban car-centric development in walkable neighborhood environment, is somehow … wrong. It doesn't belong, any more than the Sears Tower belongs in downtown Naperville. It is incongruous; it is out of context. It could be better.

I'm not trying to take anything away from the efforts of the developer, Evergreen Park Development LLC. As strip malls go it's a nice effort. Meijer stores are generally welcomed in whatever communities they choose to locate. And if what the developer says about the kind of tenants considering occupying the nine outlots along Western Avenue is true, it could be a positive addition to the retail mix in town.

Likewise, I don't dispute . The anticipated sales and real estate tax revenue would be nice, if it materializes. And the development appears to be of a higher quality than some other recently constructed, or rehabbed, strip malls. It's comparable to any of the nicer centers I've seen out in St. Charles, Plainfield or Hoffman Estates.

But that's just it. Evergreen Park isn't any of those places. Last week I wrote about how This strip center would definitely push the village closer to the suburb side. Fifteen-hundred-space parking lots and outlots belong in the Orland Parks and Schaumburgs of the world.

Sexton said the so-called 91st and Western Shopping Center would be the largest retail development in the village's history – bigger than at 95th and Western. That we are even discussing development on this scale in a village like Evergreen Park is unusual. Most older land-locked suburbs don't get opportunities to consider green space development projects like this any more. Their land was developed long ago, and the only green space left is parks.

Here, however, we had the 95-acre Evergreen Country Club golf course. A blank slate from a development standpoint. I understand Sexton's contention that the village will hold the developer to a high standard and that in a retail and real estate environment such as the one we are in, Evergreen Park is fortunate to be able to attract retailers like this. But as a community we should never allow ourselves to feel so fortunate that we fail to demand appropriate, in-context development.

The golf course land presented an opportunity to both increase the village's tax base and do a higher-density development that fit in with the surrounding area, that attracted more pedestrian traffic and that became a true destination for the southwest side. This is one of the highest-density parts of Evergreen Park. Three bus lines serve the 95th and Western corridors there. We could have built out to the sidewalk with parking in an adjacent garage or behind stores. We could have included a residential component that might have given a boost to plans to redevelop The Plaza and aided other stores in the 95th and Western area. Even the Beverly corridor along 95th could have benefited from a higher-density, multi-use development at the golf course. Notice how, in the renderings of the new shopping center, there are hardly any people, just cars. That's what I call the old way of thinking about development. There are better ways.

In short, we could have done a development that was everything the depressing Walmart/Sam's Club center is not, a vibrant development with people living there and taking pride in where they live, as opposed to getting in and out of the parking lot as quickly as possible, and abandoning it at night.

At the public hearings about the Meijer/Menard's development it sounded to me like the desire for something better is there. I think based on the pride with which the Mayor talks about the quality of the strip malls downtown, he wants better as well. But what does "better" look like? We should talk about it, because once we develop the language to describe what we want, the people will be in a better position to demand it from their elected officials, and those elected officials will be better prepared to demand it from developers.

Tracy Nickless Schorle June 22, 2011 at 05:03 PM
good for EP, sure wish this was in OL on 111th and Cicero. Will that ever be settled?
Helen Cuprisin June 22, 2011 at 05:43 PM
Chris Clair's "The Evergreen Parker" column offered an intelligent assessment of the many sides of development. The large crowd at Monday's village board meeting should be a regular occurrence. This lets the administration know what concerns their constituents.
J June 23, 2011 at 04:05 AM
One does not walk to a Menards or any big box store, because we need to transport whatever we buy. So therefore we do not need any more big box stores as we can drive to the ones already in existence. Developers are in business to expand [exploit?] commercial space. Must we give in to them? Do we not have enough stores to spend money we don't have? Is the financial crisis over? A better E.P is a more community minded E.P. with things to do for all ages. Walking thru malls doesn't count!
P June 23, 2011 at 07:05 AM
We need growth in EP. And even if they do go ahead and build this mall. There is still plenty of empty land (vacant O'Connor Ford dealership on 95th. and (vacant Fox's Body Repair shop on 96th & Pulaski) not to mention the (vacant block on 96th & Kedzie). We sure could use a decent size sit down & eat restaurant, or a nice recreation & workout facility so everyone can use it, or some other big name retailers. We can't keep the GREEN in Evergreen if we don't have the stores to shop in. What we do have plenty of are banks, credit unions, fast food joints, gas stations, medical buildings, parks & churches. Anything would be an improvement in EP if it helps stop our taxes from skyrocketing year after year. I use to think OL's taxes were high. Build it so we can get people back to work. Work = Spending = Prosper. But one big project just isn't going to be enough! We need to use the other vacant lands for something other than weeds & grass. Evergreen is a nice little village.......But it could be a GREAT village.
BB June 23, 2011 at 12:56 PM
Just what EP needs--another goldmine for the shoplifters and thieves who make Walmart, Sam's Club and the Plaza unshoppable for residents. Declining home values have resulted in a very different mix in the village, and the results are a shame. No increase in sales tax revenue is going to reverse the sad decline EP has experienced over the past ten years or so.

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