Village asks experts to assess business districts
Winnetka resident Julie Windsor stands in front of her Beat Street shop in the Hubbard Woods shopping district. | Photos by Curtis Lehmkuhl~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 17, 2012 11:56AM
Three years ago, Winnetka shopkeeper Julie Windsor moved her Beat Street emporium on Green Bay Road to a larger storefront across the street in the Hubbard Woods shopping district.
The move, which roughly doubled her square footage, marked Windsor’s second expansion since she launched her business geared to the “tween” years in a tiny space on Oak Street nine years ago.
But like other retailers, she has seen a drop-off in foot traffic since her most recent move. Despite more inventory, sales “numbers are more like what they were across the street,” she said.
Winnetka retailers were feeling the effects of changing shopping patterns even before the economy tanked. Merchants believe some of the “retail leakage” stems from a proliferation of other shopping options in nearby suburbs and the convenience of shopping online.
The Winnetka Village Council last week took the first step toward revitalizing the village’s three business districts. Trustees gave the go-ahead for Village Manager Robert Bahan to finalize a $40,000 contract with the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit organization of land use and real estate professionals.
Two groups of experts, known as Technical Assistance Panels, will examine the downtown district centered around Elm Street and Green Bay Road, as well as the Hubbard Woods and Indian Hills districts at the northern and southern ends of the village, respectively.
One team will assess the three districts, while the other is expected to recommend actions that could spur development and ease the approval process for businesses. The panelists look at market potential, land use and design, financing and development strategies, governance and implementation issues.
Terry Dason, executive director of the Winnetka-Northfield Chamber of Commerce, is thrilled the village is taking that step. Input will be sought from many, including local merchants, owners of commercial and residential property, and local and civic organizations.
“I think the professionals (who) are coming in are so knowledgeable about these kind of business communities, that the fact they are willing to volunteer their time to research our community is incredible,” Dason said.
“One of the best parts of Winnetka is that we have so many independent, retail shops with so many unique products that you cannot find in the chain stores,” said Dason. “That’s what the (retailers) are hoping will continue to carry them.”
In the Hubbard Woods district, a group of merchants has been meeting regularly to brainstorm ideas, including the creation of a separate marketing brochure and possibly designating the area the “Hubbard Woods Design District,” playing up the large number of interior design-related businesses.
Cynthia McSherry, executive director of the Urban Land Institute, said the economy has dampened the climate for large-scale transformations in many places the institute has studied. So ULI professionals have been revisiting some communities to figure out smaller steps.
“You are not going to get that mixed-use residential development,” McSherry told the Village Council last week. “In order to do the big projects, you need to get your hands on the land first.”
Wilmette, after engaging the services of ULI, created a master plan for the downtown area using The Lakota Group consulting firm. The village streamlined some outdated and unnecessary zoning and permitting requirements that were deterring new businesses, McSherry said.
That sounds promising to Julie Windsor, who was stymied in her efforts to open an ice cream parlor two years ago in the old Hubbard Woods post office building. Sign restrictions also have been an issue for Beat Street, because the store’s hot-color logo and “funkadelic” color scheme don’t blend in well with the sedate brownish colors of the buildings.
“Maybe (the Urban Land Institute) can shed some light on what is wrong here,” she said, “and why we are not getting more small new businesses.”