JOLIET – Reconnecting Chicago Street can't come soon enough for Mike Trizna, co-owner of Chicago Street Bar and Grill.
"We've owned this place for 11 years, and 11 years ago I asked people if they could do something to make it happen," Trizna said.
About 30 years ago, a small section of Chicago Street was blocked off to create a parking lot for the Will County Courthouse. The plan did create a parking lot that has been there since. But it also diverted traffic off Chicago Street just before motorists would have reached the heart of the downtown business district.
Proponents say reconnecting the street would bring back needed traffic, especially for start-up restaurants and the other entrepreneurial businesses that tend to open in the struggling downtown area.
"We're doing – knock on wood – quite well," Trizna said. "But you can never have too much business or too much visibility."
Reconnecting Chicago Street has been the focus of downtown redevelopment plans for years. Joliet officials have made the job the top priority from the latest downtown plan, and the city has targeted construction to start in fall 2017.
Much has to happen before that, including the city acquiring the needed property from Will County. But city officials are confident enough that they are preparing to hire an engineering firm to begin planning the job.
Next door to Chicago Street Bar and Grill is The Blue Taco.
Owner Thomas Moreno has been in business less than three years and said the restaurant could use the added exposure that a reconnected Chicago Street might bring.
"When the courthouse closes, it's dead down here," Moreno said. "The foot traffic down here at night is dead – even on weekends."
Ironically, the closure of Chicago Street accompanied a plan to increase pedestrian activity downtown. Sidewalks were widened, planters were added and Chicago Street itself was narrowed. Joliet, like many cities that saw stores exit downtown areas in the 1970s, wanted to create a pedestrian mall environment that would compete with the new indoor malls.
James Roolf, president of the First Midwest Bank's Joliet Banking Center, which is headquartered downtown, said he remembers how busy downtown was in 1974 when he first came to the city.
"Downtown had the Kline's Department Store and Penney's and Sears and Barrett's Hardware and Turk Furniture," he said. "Downtown had all that, and I shopped at those stores."
First Midwest Bank in the next year plans to move from its existing downtown location to a new spot on Chicago Street. The bank had to move anyway, since it has sold its current building to Will County, which plans to use the site for a new courthouse. But Roolf hopes a Chicago Street location will prove more valuable once the street is reconnected.
"I think opening up Chicago Street to what it was when I first came to Joliet would be important for downtown," he said. "It opens it up to people who are here already. But it opens it up to people who are coming to the Rialto, the library and other places downtown."
Roolf and others say that people unfamiliar with downtown Joliet can be baffled by the street layout, including the many one-way streets.
Not having a direct route from Interstate 80 to his Chicago Street store doesn't help, said Frank Kula, who with his brother Mark Kula, owns Kula Jewelry & Loan.
"When we try to give people directions from Orland Park or Mokena, it's very difficult giving directions coming off I-80," Kula said.
Kula said the Chicago Street reconnection is "long overdue," especially for a city that tries to bring people downtown.
"If we are trying to attract people from out of town," he said, "we should make it easier to come here."