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.