Water Street project remains in the spotlight
By Hank Beckman For The Sun December 15, 2012 4:48PM
Artist rendering of the proposed Water Street project in downtown Naperville. | submitted Nov. 2012
Updated: January 17, 2013 6:48AM
The recent Naperville City Council decision to send the controversial Water Street project back the Planning and Zoning Commission leaves undecided the fate of one of the largest development projects in Naperville history.
But early indications are that the process over the past few weeks has not changed the minds of the Planning and Zoning commissioners, who earlier supported the project.
Marquette Properties’ original proposal was for a Holiday Inn hotel, a 551-space parking structure, 61 apartments and 75,000 square feet of office/retail space on a 2.4-acre parcel south of the DuPage River and north of Aurora Avenue. The plan was called a “game changer” for the area by former Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman John Herzog when the project was given a positive recommendation by the commission in August.
But stiff opposition from some local residents, particularly the Naperville Area Homeowners Confederation, prompted the City Council to send the plan back to the commission for more discussion.
“I didn’t agree with the council’s decision to do that,” Commissioner Kevin Coyne said in a telephone interview. “The public and the Planning and Zoning Commission had ample opportunity to comment on the development.”
The lion’s share of the opposition stemmed from the proposed height of certain buildings in the development.
While city code limits the height of buildings downtown to 60 feet or less, the proposal originally called for the hotel to be 90 feet tall.
City staff consistently stood behind its recommendation that the project go forward.
At several City Council meetings, the developer learned that the community had a distinct idea of exactly what constituted the proper height of a building, and so lowered the proposed height twice, once to 88 feet total height and then again to 74 feet, chopping an entire floor off the proposed hotel building in the process.
But the height and overall density of the development, in addition to concerns about potential parking and traffic problems, were enough to send the project back to the commission.
The commission gave the project a positive recommendation when it first discussed the plan, with six of Coyne’s colleagues joining him to override the objections of Patricia Meyer and Tim Messer.
Coyne has seen nothing during the sometimes-contentious City Council hearings on the project to change his mind.
“I supported the project in its original form and I support it now,” he said.
Coyne acknowledged that there might be some problems with the plan, but stressed that they would be “outweighed by the potential benefits to the community.”
Coyne also said that the business community needed a certain level of certainty if it were to continue investing and developing in Naperville.
Messer said he was glad to see the development back before the commission.
“I do welcome the opportunity to take another look at it,” he said, while noting that he was encouraged by some of Marquette’s concessions, saying, “they’re moving in the right direction.”
But Messer said that the height of the buildings was still a huge concern, especially with the potential to cast shadows over the Riverwalk, considered by many to be the crown jewel of Naperville’s downtown.
He stressed that he was not opposed to development on the site, and didn’t think that opposition to Water Street was a drag on local development to the point where it would influence others not to invest in Naperville.
“I really don’t think it (Naperville) is going to die if this particular development doesn’t go forward,” he said.
Meyer said she didn’t think developers would be less inclined to invest in Naperville.
“I hope that’s not the case,” she said. “I do want to see that site developed.”
Rumors have been circulating that there may be a motion to reconsider the move back to the commission before the City Council at its Tuesday meeting, but as The Sun went to press, no one has gone on record to say it will happen and there is no item related to the proposal on the council’s agenda.
City Attorney Margo Ely indicated in an email that a motion to reconsider could be done on Tuesday if it received the support of six Council members, but stressed that a final decision on the development could not be made that night because the item isn’t listed on the meeting agenda.
“I don’t support that,” City Council member Grant Wehrli said of a motion to reconsider.
Wehrli has been a consistent critic of the project as proposed, and Saturday he stressed the importance of Naperville’s traditional approach to development projects.
“We have a process to follow,” he said. “The process has served us well historically in development.”
Councilman Joe McElroy disagreed.
“I didn’t want it to go back to Planning and Zoning,” he said. “City Council needs to step up and do its job.”
Councilwoman Judy Brodhead said she was undecided on whether she would vote to reconsider, saying only that the developer had reached out to City Council members within the last week and indicated that he was still interested in pursuing the project.
Planning and Zoning Commission Chairwoman Patty Gustin said that she had not received a specific date from city staff as to when the project might appear before the commission.
She continues to support the development, and welcomes the chance to review it again.
“It’s always a good thing when the public gets to speak,” she said. “Their views need to be heard.”
Gustin said that Naperville is certainly open to growth.
“We do want development,” he said. “Smart development.”