Winnetka trustee disappointed with downtown streetscape
Winnetka Plan Commission members and other village officials leave Village Hall last week and walk down Chestnut Court led by Trustee Christopher Rintz, who argues proper lighting is key to a successful business district. | Kimberly Fornek~Sun-Times Media
Business District Improvements
Winnetka village officials are once again turning their attention to improvements in the business districts.
Steven Saunders, the director of public works, was scheduled to review several options at the Village Council meeting Tuesday. One approach would be to repair and maintain sidewalks, curbs, and tree grates with materials similar to what is currently there.
At certain corners, such as Elm and Chestnut streets, where entire sections of pavers need to be replaced, Saunders suggests clay pavers be installed instead of concrete. Similarly, clay pavers could be used in the crosswalks. Saunders estimated such repairs, without major upgrades, in all four business districts (East Elm, West Elm, Hubbard Woods and Indian Hill) would cost $488,000.
The council also has the Streetscape Phase 1 Implementation Plan to consider, developed by committee in 2008 and 2009 based on the Streetscape Master Plan prepared by the Lakota Group and adopted by the council in December 2008. Implementation of Phase 1 came to a halt according to the wishes of 68 percent of voters on an advisory referendum in February 2010, which asked whether the village should spend $5.5 million on streetscape improvements described in Phase 1 or look for cheaper ways to revitalize Winnetka’s shopping areas.
Village officials may still consider some aspects of the Phase 1 plan, such as replacing the streetlights. The cost would depend on the condition of the electrical system, whether it has the capacity to handle a greater load, and whether new conduits, cables and controls would be needed to service the lighting upgrades.
Saunders wants the Village Council to direct how the staff should proceed. Specifically, should pressing repairs be made according to the standards in the Streetscape Master Plan, and what will be the long-term strategy for improvements in the commercial districts.
In addition to the scope of the improvements, village officials will also have to consider financing options, which include cash reserves, special service areas and home rule sales tax.
Updated: April 16, 2012 2:25PM
Like a professor of urban planning, Winnetka Trustee Christopher Rintz led a group through the village’s business district last week, directing them to observe the strengths and weaknesses of the area.
Rintz pointed out street lighting, utility wires and the condition of sidewalks and curbs. He instructed his companions — plan commissioners, members of the Village Council and interested residents — to consider how those elements affected their impression of the village.
“Does it enhance, does it detract, or does it matter at all?” Rintz asked at several points during the stroll through the West Elm business district, which was part of the Winnetka Plan Commission’s April 4 meeting.
With less than a month left in his second term as a village trustee, Rintz believes it is time to show residents what he has been talking about from his seat on the council and, prior to that, as a member of the Building Review Committee and other advisory groups.
“I want people to see through my eyes, as a professional real estate person, who does development in this environment,” he explained.
Rintz said he has experience revitalizing town centers and downtowns in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, and has seen what works and what doesn’t.
Some people might think his guided walking tour is “self-indulgent,” Rintz said. Others might think it’s a criticism of the village staff for not properly maintaining Winnetka’s streets and sidewalks, but he said that’s not his intent.
“It’s not a witch hunt; it’s no reflection on the wonderful staff we have,” he said.
“I really felt after weighing in on these issues for 10 years, I wanted to share what I’ve learned.”
Rintz maintains that public dollars should support private investment.
“There should be a synergy between the two,” he said.
Rintz argued that this synergy is not apparent in Winnetka, especially in the dim light cast by 40-year-old street lights.
“We all invested heavily in this community when we bought here, when we landscaped our property and maintain our property,” he said. “The village investment should be reflected in the investment we made.”
The $250,000 the village has allocated in next year’s budget for street and sidewalk repairs is not on a par with the amount residents are spending for homes that are among the most expensive in the Chicago area, Rintz said.
Rintz preferred to escort the Plan Commission on the tour after dark because the lack of adequate lighting was a key aspect of his criticism.
He told the group to contrast the streetlights on Chestnut Court behind Village Hall with the lights on nearby streets. On Chestnut Court, pairs of street lamps on either side of the center walkway illuminate benches and an empty fountain. But moving south and standing at the intersection of Oak and Chestnut streets, which is considered a gateway to the village’s downtown, the street lamps were more sparse and the light they cast was interrupted by dark sections of unlit sidewalk.
Evaluating the streetlights is critical, Rintz said, because when scheduling public improvements, replacing the street lamps would precede putting in new sidewalks and repaving streets.
“If we patched up all the streets and sidewalks so it looked shiny new, you would still have the same street lighting we have here today,” Rintz said.
If in five years village officials decide they want new street lamps, Rintz said they would have to tear up the new sidewalks and newly paved streets, essentially, “respending money you just spent the first time around.”
At Chestnut and Cherry streets, one utility pole is leaning one way, another pole is leaning the opposite way.
“You can go in any neighborhood on any corner and do your own inspection,” Rintz said, challenging residents to ask, “Is this indicative and reflective of my investment?”
The conclusion Rintz draws is that the amount of taxpayer money Winnetka spends on its visible infrastructure and streetscape aesthetics does not correlate with the high property taxes residents pay.
“It used to be we had New Trier (Township High School). It was our ace in the hole,” Rintz said, because it offered a high-quality public education — “the one thing they couldn’t get anywhere else. Twenty years ago, that was the case.”
But not anymore, Rintz continued, because students from high schools such as Stevenson, Hinsdale Central and Deerfield score as well on academic tests as New Trier students.
“We are in a very, very competitive market these days,” he said.
Crumbling curbs, broken rain gutters and a deserted downtown could discourage potential homeowners from buying in Winnetka, Rintz argued.
He suggested the village spend its ample reserves on the downtown as well as make major improvements to its stormwater system, which became a top priority after last July’s floods.
Plan Commission members did not discuss their reaction to Rintz’s tour, but commission chairman Becky Hurley and other commissioners, such as Jack Coladarci and Joni Johnson, said they thought the tour was worthwhile.
“I’m glad to get out and look at these things,” Hurley said.
The Village Council was scheduled to discuss repairs to the commercial districts at its Tuesday night meeting.