By Bob Uphues
North Riverside officials will begin charting the course for future economic development next week, when trustees and staff discuss a commercial study that provides a picture of existing conditions, describes commercial opportunities and recommends ways the village can foster future commercial redevelopment.
The North Riverside Village Board's three-person Finance Committee, which likely will be joined by the three other trustees and the mayor will meet to discuss the report at a meeting scheduled for June 17 at 6 p.m. in the council room of the Village Commons, 2401 Desplaines Ave., prior to the village board's regular business meeting.
The report by retired municipal planner Robert Kallien is the result of three months of work, gathering information about the village's commercial properties, talking to representatives of key commercial properties and analyzing conditions and future pressures that might affect those properties in the future.
The village board in February approved spending $11,400 for Kallien to complete the report. At the same time, the board created an Economic Development Commission, an advisory group chaired by former village trustee Jason Bianco, which has met several times since then.
Kallien notes in the 19-page report that his study is just the first step in what needs to be a comprehensive look at the village's approach to future economic development.
"A more sustained effort will be required to take this study from ideas to reality,' Kallien wrote. "It is anticipated that significant village involvement will be necessary in order to carry out the findings of the study due to the size of the commercial area, the diverse ownership of the commercial sites, the proposed opportunities for mixed-use and the amount of long-term infrastructure improvements that may be required to sustain those areas."
The report reaffirms the challenges retail businesses face generally, and how important it will be in the future for North Riverside to adjust to that new reality. Commercial property accounts for 17 percent of the village's total land area, the report states.
North Riverside Park Mall, according to the report has a vacancy rate of almost 21 percent, while the adjacent North Riverside Park Plaza, where Tony's Finer Foods formerly was located, is 58 percent vacant.
While there are some future tenants on the way in both shopping centers, retail continues to face severe challenges. The report states that Kohl's is looking to consolidate its operation to 40,000 square feet from its current 90,000.
Meanwhile, the report notes that North Riverside Park Mall officials have hired an architectural firm to develop a future improvement plan, including a "what if" plan that contemplates the loss of Sears and J.C. Penney.
"The continued vibrancy of this [commercial] sector is paramount to the health and welfare of the village and its residents," Kallien wrote in the report."
Among the steps village officials ought to consider to establish a formal economic development program are creating a comprehensive plan "to fully reflect the vision for the village."
A comprehensive plan, said Kallien, would serve as a master plan to guide future development.
"It presents a vision for the future, with long-range goals and objectives for all activities that affect the community and its residents," Kallien wrote in his study.
Once that plan is adopted, Kallien advised, the village should overhaul its sign code and zoning code.
The sign code was approved in 1992 and apparently is being updated currently as a standalone ordinance "to avoid having public hearings before the Plan Commission/Zoning Board of Appeals for any amendments."
The zoning code has not been comprehensively updated since 1990 and includes obsolete terminology and lacks references to contemporary businesses.
"Modern day establishments that sell cellular phones or drive-thru coffee don't appear to be clearly defined anywhere in the code," Kallien wrote.
Kallien also cast some doubt on a 2006 ordinance that limited the "reuse of certain types of commercial buildings."
"Even though I understand the village's basis to protect its commercial areas, I have some questions if this ordinance would stand a legal challenge," Kallien wrote, adding that the village "should also include a review of the public hearing process to ensure consistency with Illinois State Statutes."
Specifically in terms of economic development, Kallien said the village should consider creating a community/economic development position or retain a commercial real estate broker to serve as a point person for those efforts and key contact for the development and business communities.
The village should also establish a consistent set of standards for providing economic incentives to encourage development instead of the case-by-case method the village has followed for many years.
Kallien suggested the village become acquainted with tax increment financing (TIF) districts and Cook County tax incentive programs as ways to help finance future redevelopment.
Calling the village's commercial district "the life blood for the community and its financial future," Kallien said officials could should forge long-term partnerships with large commercial property owners, whose structures are 40 or more years old and "will need to be replaced while others will require substantial physical upkeep or modification to exist in a future retail environment."