JOLIET – A development consultant presented the City Council with a plan Monday aimed at making downtown Joliet a “dynamic urban center” appealing to a youth market.
The plan, however, immediately ran into static from Mayor Bob O’Dekirk, who criticized it for lacking dollar amounts to go with ideas and disagreed with the first priority laid out by the planner making the presentation.
Bill James, a planner with Camiros, a Chicago-based consulting group hired to develop a plan to revitalize downtown Joliet, said the plan was aimed at “getting things done.”
James’ report to the council was optimistic at times, saying downtown had strong anchors, such as the Rialto Square Theatre and Silver Cross Field, and could become a “youth mecca” and a regional attraction.
He said Chicago Street could be converted into a vibrant corridor with wider sidewalks for cafe seating and bicycle lanes to add variety to the modes of transportation.
But he also pointed to problems, such as too many vacancies between the anchor attractions downtown.
“These are great attractions for people, but the rest of downtown is really lacking,” James said. “We need to fill the vacancies.”
He called on the city to develop more residential property downtown with the aim of attracting young people and creating a market for retail development. But James also said the major reason to target the youth demographic for rental housing was because empty-nesters and even young professionals were unlikely to move there and buy property.
“Young adults are less likely to rule out living in downtown Joliet for image and perception problems,” James said.
James also said Joliet should hire someone to develop a strategy to manage the homeless and vagrant population downtown.
“You have to get a handle on this,” he said. “I think Joliet has a reputation as a welcoming community. At the same time, you can’t let it undermine your whole downtown.”
To get started, James emphasized the need to improve the working relationship between City Hall and the City Center Partnership, a group of downtown business owners focused on promoting the downtown area.
He recommended an economic development staffer focused on downtown who would answer to both City Hall and the City Center Partnership. He also said the City Center Partnership should take a stronger role in economic development.
But the mayor rejected the idea that the relationship needed restructuring.
“I think it’s a little misguided to make this the No. 1 priority,” O’Dekirk told James. “I think the roles are clear.”
Asked after the meeting about his objection to the recommendation, the mayor said, “I really don’t know what he was getting at.”
However, Rod Tonelli, board president at the City Center Partnership, said after the meeting he agreed with James’ assessment of the need to reorganize the relationship.
“It doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been working well, but things can always be working better,” Tonelli said.
Costing it out
O’Dekirk also criticized James for not putting dollar amounts on recommendations, such as the Chicago Street plan, which includes opening Chicago Street where it is now blocked by a parking lot outside of the Will County Courthouse as well as improvements in the streetscape.
James responded by offering some cost estimates, saying opening Chicago Street could cost more than $200,000, while the conversion of the street into an urban thoroughfare could be as much as $5 million.
But he said other proposals, including hiring a professional to work on the homeless situation and modernized downtown parking, were not expensive.
“There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit you can do to improve the downtown that is not too expensive,” James said. “There are other big-ticket items.”