Trustees Review Options for Downtown Enhancements

Trustees Review Options for Downtown Enhancements

With the goal of “making a good thing better,” Village trustees considered recommendations from planning consultants for changes to downtown Northbrook. The recommendations covered a wide range of options to address parking concerns, the future use of the former Grainger property, and potential development of publicly-owned land near downtown. In subsequent discussions, the Board prioritized strategies to improve public event space and encourage pedestrian and bike travel, and rejected the option of moving the Metra station to the Grainger property.

Parking – The Downtown study, prepared by Business Districts Inc.(BDI) and Fish Transportation Group, revisited and updated research conducted in 2011. Then as now, perceived parking shortages are a chronic concern cited by downtown business owners. The data presented revealed a more nuanced view of the parking situation: aside from the Metra lot which is at capacity throughout the day, all other parking zones had 35% or more of their spots available at any given time. However, most parking spots — 60% — in downtown are in privately owned lots, which discourages shoppers from parking once and strolling around downtown. The study recommended finding ways to promote shared parking in private lots, as well as adding angled and/or parallel street parking where possible.

The crowded conditions in the Metra lot were partially explained as a function of the low parking prices and a lack of pedestrian and bicycle amenities, which encourage auto use. Northbrook’s station has fewer patrons walking or biking compared to neighboring stations in Deerfield and Glenview, and the Village charges less for daily parking than the other nearest stations. Trustees noted anecdotally that they know Northbrook residents who drive to the Glen station for the relative ease of parking, paying a slightly lower fare to ride to Chicago. The consultants suggested changing the pricing structure to incentivize more people to park elsewhere, like the current free parking lot at the former Grainger site half a mile south of the train station.

The Trustees acknowledged that the low $1.00 parking fee works against the goal of encouraging commuters to leave their cars at home. Village Manager Rich Nahrstadt pointed out that a fee increase would likely be necessary in the near future to pay for lot maintenance. Trustee Bob Israel suggested that any fee increase should coincide with improvements to amenities for bicyclists.

Future uses for Grainger – The discussion of parking transitioned into the broader topic of how best to use the Grainger site. The Village purchased the 10.3 acre site on Shermer Road in 2018, recognizing its potential for a variety of public and private development options. An early idea was the relocation of the Metra station, with the goal of freeing up parking near downtown as well as alleviating traffic back-ups caused by trains stopped at the station. However, this proposal became less appealing in light of a $20 million price tag for the project, as well as a statement by Metra that outbound trains stopped at the new station would still cause crossing guard rails to close downtown. In the view of the BDI consultants, “Moving the Metra station has a high cost for little impact.”
The report indicated that the property could be sold, for more than the 2018 purchase price, to residential developers for rental apartments and townhomes. Such a development would also bring revenue to the Village from property taxes as well as sales taxes on new resident spending. Other proposed uses, including a performance venue, business incubator space, private commercial development, or public purposes like a new police station, were noted to be very expensive, unlikely, or not adding to the vitality of downtown.

The Trustees agreed with the consultants that moving the train station to Grainger would not be a worthwhile investment. Whether or not the Village will sell the property and under what terms will be discussed further in a private Executive Session.

Alternative uses of public land – The study suggested various options for development of Village-controlled properties. In particular, the consultants looked at ways to reduce the Village’s dependence on the Park District’s Village Green Park, which they described as an “unparalleled” community event space. One proposal involved Shermerville Commons, an open water detention area adjacent to the Library and Village Hall, that potentially could be redesigned as alternative public event space, with improved connections between downtown, the existing train station, and the Library/Village Hall campus.

Board members were enthusiastic about developing event space options, citing the success of the recent Friday Night Flights and the potential for future Village-run events. Trustees Kathryn Ciesla and Jason Han stated their support the Shermerville Commons concept, while Trustees Muriel Collison, Bob Israel and Johannah Hebl hoped to explore a variety of “place-making” improvements.

Redevelopment of privately-owned properties
The study reevaluated ideas raised in 2011 for redevelopment of Meadow Plaza and the Bank of America lot. Concepts included reorienting storefronts to face Meadow Road or the river, or to replace existing structures with new residential apartments and commercial structures. Trustees stated that potential changes in ownership and other factors made further planning for that area premature.

In the meantime, the Board discussed measures to enhance the attractiveness and accessibility of the shopping areas through decorative lighting, enhanced landscaping, and sidewalk re-designs. Public/private partnerships might be used to help fund installations.
Overall, the Trustees expressed an interest in enhancing the community feel of the downtown area with steps that are financially feasible. While the eventual disposition of the Grainger property remains to be determined, Village staff will be looking at changes to local parking, appearance, and bike/pedestrian access that will have an impact on downtown in the very near future.