Downtown development success lies in local support

By Ed McMenamin,

Suburban Life Publications

Elmhurst, IL — When Classic Cinemas bought the York Theatre in the mid ‘80s, it was suffering from “deferred maintenance,” to put it kindly, Classic Cinemas President Willis Johnson said.

Much of downtown Elmhurst looked the same, or worse — vacant storefronts, low foot traffic and a lack of downtown residences.

“A lot of downtowns were struggling at that time,” Johnson said. “Some of the stores had gone to outlying shopping centers that were being built.”

In response to downtown’s decline, the city formed a commission for downtown redevelopment, which was followed by a redevelopment plan, and then the formation of the downtown tax increment financing district in 1986, former city manager Tom Borchert said.

Along with the TIF, former and current city officials and business leaders also point to two other steps that led to downtown’s resurgence — the renovation of the York Theatre and the creation of the City Centre.

Two towns to the west, Lombard has taken some of the same steps — it created a downtown TIF in 1988 — but a full bounty of mixed-use developments, shopping and eateries have not yet materialized. For nearly every attractive coffee shop or restaurant, there’s a vacancy. Lombard officials hoped a redevelopment study finalized last March would bring downtown to life, though 11 months after its presentation, little has been done.

Flipping through then-and-now pictures that compare downtown Lombard of 2012 to what it was 20 years before, the changes are significant. There are new businesses, new buildings and new looks to old buildings, but vacancies still slow revitalization.

Theresa Brzezinski, general manager at Shannon’s Corner Butcher Shoppe, grew up in Lombard and remembers riding her bike to the downtown district as kid. It was always a destination for her and her friends, but was still a quiet place.

“Lombard’s always been a place for people to come,” she said, “but we’ve always wanted to have more.”

Unlike Elmhurst, Lombard lost its historic downtown theater, and along with it one of the best ways to make downtown a destination.

Elmhurst’s York Theatre was on the verge of the same fate before major renovative work.

In 1991, the city loaned Classic Cinemas $400,000 for a $1.1 million renovation project that expanded the historic theater from one screen to three, and created what would become one of downtown Elmhurst’s biggest pulls. The theater repaid the loan, and has expanded several times since. It’s now a 10-screen theater that combines modern movie technology with historic touches, like the restored art deco facade.

Importance of a well-funded downtown group
Another momentum-builder followed shortly after the theater’s rebirth when Elmhurst created the City Centre organization in 1994. In addition, a funding mechanism in two Special Service Areas (SSA) downtown — districts where land owners pay an additional property tax that goes to fund the centre — was created.

With an annual budget comprised of SSA dollars and TIF funds of more than $800,000, the Elmhurst City Centre is able to market the downtown as a whole, provide additional maintenance, such as sidewalk snow removal and street cleaning, and add features that make downtown inviting, like planters and holiday decorations.

“Somebody that’s looking to open a bakery or a restaurant, they walk around the area and they see the other businesses, they see the planters, they see the level of decorations, they look at the events held year-round,” said City Centre Executive Director Tom Paravola. “And those are enticements to come to the area. … Perspective-wise, the city of Elmhurst was really thinking ahead years ago … when the downtown area was nothing like it is today.”

The City Centre operates as a separate entity from the city, with its own board and input from the downtown business owners, but it also has city officials sit as ex-officio directors.

“There has to be a high level of cooperation,” Paravola said. “It would not all work if everyone was not working together well.”

Lombard’s Town Centre strives to market its downtown district in a similar way, but without the tax-based funding mechanism of Elmhurst’s City Centre, it doesn’t have nearly the resources. The non-profit organization relies on membership fees from businesses and residents who choose to be members, and from non-guaranteed financial assistance from the village.

“We try to help the whole area, regardless of if they’re members,” said Karen Stonehouse, executive director of the Town Centre. “Our mission is founded on the whole downtown.”

Last month, Lombard’s village board approved $38,500 for the Town Centre for fiscal 2012, at the recommendation of the village’s economics and community development committee.

During the meeting’s public comment portion, business owners, Town Centre volunteers and community members spoke to express their support for the Lombard Town Centre and its executive director, Karen Stonehouse, said the board room was filled with residents concerned about the future of the organization.

The village has regularly supported the centre, providing it with nearly $424,000 from the TIF budget since the centre’s inception in 2005.

TIF dollars and projects
By objective measure, Elmhurst’s efforts downtown have been a success.

When the TIF was created, the equalized assessed value of the included properties was $16.8 million, said Elmhurst Assistant City Manager Mike Kopp. Now, it’s $90.3 million.

When a city creates a TIF, property values are “frozen” at the current level. As redevelopment occurs and property values increase, the city captures the increased property taxes and puts them in the TIF fund, which can only be spent on projects in the district.

That increase in property value since 1986 now collects $1.7 million annually for the fund, which has been used for dozens of projects, the longest-running being the $8.6 million streetscape project that replaces concrete sidewalks with pavers and adds other improvements. It’s expected to be completed this year, Kopp said.

It has also funded the city’s participation in several public-private projects, from the Jewel expansion, to the Elmhurst Medical Center to mixed-use developments.

Developments haven’t been free from controversies regarding preservation of historic buildings, building heights and other issues, but the general result is a higher population density in the downtown via condos and apartments, and the mixed-use structures that put retail space below parking, offices or residences.

“In order to make the economics of redevelopment work, having reasonable density is essential,” said Morningside Group President David Strosberg.

Morningside has developed projects in downtown both privately, and with the assistance of TIF dollars.

Former Elmhurst City Manager Tom Borchert also credits the foresight to build parking decks.

“Folks in the community said, ‘a parking deck in downtown Elmhurst?’” he said. “Now everybody parks in parking decks.”

Lombard’s downtown EAV has also grown substantially, but not at quite the same level.

The EAV of property in the downtown TIF district was $8.4 million when it was established in 1988. The value is now $42.8 million.

Like Elmhurst, Lombard has various business grants funded by the TIF, including a renovation grant for facades, signage and parking lots, a downtown relocation grant, a downtown restaurant forgivable loan and a downtown retail business grant.

Through 2011, the village has invested more than $1 million in available TIF funds to its various grant program, said Bill Heniff, director of community development for Lombard.

Since the programs have been available, several of the prominent businesses in the downtown have taken advantage of the support from the village: Praga, Bricks, Cabinets Depot, Randall Bullen Photography and more.

Two more grants are going before the economic and community development committee for review next week.

Stonehouse said there are also several new businesses coming to downtown Lombard in the early months of 2012. Whether this means downtown is picking up steam is unclear.

“Whether it’s a gradual increase in confidence, I don’t know,” she said. “Everyone has their own reasons for coming here. When people see ‘Coming soon’ signs, hopefully we’re building momentum.”

Looking forward in Lombard
The village is hopping that will soon change with the implementation of the Lombard Downtown Revitalization Project Guidebook, prepared by Teska Associates for the village last March.

“The big thing we want to look at (is) implementation of the downtown guide book,” said Heniff. “We spent the time and effort to create that plan.”

Tangible progress on the plan is slow to measure, although several preliminary projects were identified for 2011 and the early months of 2012. These include providing training opportunities for business owners, identifying potential new businesses and establishing the relationship between the village and Lombard Town Centre. Both Stonehouse and Heniff agree that parts of what the timeline dictates for 2011 have been accomplished, but more work needs to be done in 2012.

“It’s definitely something we need to keep in front of us at every point, so it doesn’t get covered in dust like some have been know to happen,” Stonehouse said.

The plan would redevelop several key areas in or near the core of the downtown.

One of the main projects for 2012 is the construction of a pedestrian underpass that will be constructed by Metra and the Union Pacific Railroad, Heniff said.

This $6.2 million project being completed by Metra and Union Pacific is one of the major construction projects for Lombard in 2012. Although the railroad companies will be largely responsible for the underpass being built at Park Avenue, funds from Lombard’s TIF will go to enhance the aesthetic quality of the area, Heniff said.

Aside from this, the village’s redevelopment plan outlines plans for future development projects at spaces like the old site of the DuPage Theatre, the buildings at the south east and west corners of Main Street and St. Charles Road, the location of the Fifth Third Bank on St. Charles Road and more.

Revitalization of Lombard’s downtown depends on the empty storefronts being filled and the funds generated from the TIF district sufficient to sustain projects.

For a life-long Lombardian like Brzezinski, a bustling and thriving downtown is something to hope for.

“I have mad credit for (businesses) who are coming into a downtown district, especially Lombard, because we’re not totally there yet,” she said. “I do hope to see it full.”

– Reporter Sarah Small contributed to this report.

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