Tuesday, January 31, 2006

A couple more thoughts/questions on the proposed Wal-Mart on Randall Road. Is the property already incorporated? If not, is it substantially contiguous to South Elgin such that there's a possibilty of it being annexed to South Elgin if Elgin doesn't agree to the development in its current form? If the city is in a strong negotiating position, I think it might consider asking for an additional Wal-Mart on Summit on the east side, at that empty lot just west of the Jewel-Osco plaza (see map). That lot has been empty forever--it's a blight, and it's large enough for a Wal-Mart. I think people on the east side would appreciate a Wal-Mart; Wal-Mart would do very good business there; and the city would get tax revenues that would otherwise go to Dundee. Shouldn't we at least ask for a feasibility/market study for an additional Wal-Mart store on that Summit site or another site on the east side before we agree to one on Randall?

The Chicago Tribune also ran an article on the debate.
"This deal concerns me," council member Thomas Sandor said Wednesday. "This is one of Elgin's last prime pieces of property on Randall Road. When I look north to Algonquin or south to South Elgin and Geneva, I see upscale, high-end retail, and Elgin gets discount stores?"

Plans for the 73-acre site at Randall and Bowes Roads include a 196,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Super Center with a grocery, a 138,500-square-foot Sam's Club and gas station, and nine retail outlots.

The City Council is expected to revisit the proposal Feb. 22.

Friday, January 27, 2006

I've finally gotten around to fixing the broken "Community" link on the menu over there -->

That's the only link that goes to a Craigslist page. The others go to Oodle, which aggregates just about all classifieds. So it's a powerful resource for anyone looking for Elgin jobs, real estate, or merchandise. For now, I've left out the Pets and Tickets categories.

And if you were wondering about the masthead, it should be back within a few days.
The council tabled a proposal to put a Sam's Club and Wal-Mart Supercenter on Randall Road at the Bowes intersection. I hadn't heard anything about this proposal before, so I found it sort of suprising. I'd thought though that the site mentioned was the one the GBL had its eyes on for a branch library. But I guess not, unless they're going to put it in the Wal-Mart parking lot.

Anyway, as usual the mayor was for the development, arguing it would generate $1.6M per year in tax revenue. It's hard to argue against revenue! But the opposition, which seems to have been led by Mr. Sandor, said Elgin deserved higher-end retail, something better than Wal-Mart.

Retail on Randall in Elgin is sort of a tricky problem. I talked about this in a previous entry. Geneva and Algonguin boxed us in with their Commons. I don't think there's anything we can do about that. If we could hop on a magic carpet and go several years back in time, the city would have had its ear to the ground, and as soon as it had heard rumours of an Algonquin Commons, it would have preempted the development and moved it to Elgin via an appropriate incentive package. That didn't happen, so I think we have to adjust to the current reality.

I'm not sure what Mr. Sandor and the other opposing members mean by "high-end" retail, but my guess would be that whatever it is, it's not realistic. Such stores would tend to congregate near the existing "high-end" centers at Geneva and Algonguin. But even if Elgin could attract a retailer that was more "high-end" than Walmart, since higher prices generally translate to lower sales volume, there's no telling whether it would generate more or less in tax revenue.

As far as discount retailers go, my preference would be for a Sears Grand. I think the council should march down Beverly Road and make a case for why a Sears Grand on Randall would not only be profitable, but solve many of Sears's employee morale problems. Unlike a Walmart, a Sears Grand is novel enough that it would be of regional interest; I think it would draw shoppers from the tri-cities, as well as the northern Fox Valley, and of course it would draw Sears employees, many of whom have never even seen a real life Sears Grand. Sears Grand makes particularly good sense in Elgin, I think, because while Sears used to have a presence in the heart of Elgin, the downtown, it now has no presence in Elgin whatsoever. A great city of 100,000 people--the closest real city to their headquarters--and no Sears! This is a terrible situation in need of a remedy.

If Sears refuses to bite though, I think a new Wal-Mart is not such a bad idea. But I'm sort of biased; unlike some people today, I have nothing against Walmart. I think its low prices have given millions of Americans a higher standard of living.

I'm more skeptical of the Lowes hardware store that the council approved several weeks ago. Now there's going to be two Home Depots (a new one just broke ground on Randall & McDonald), a Menards and a Lowes all in spitting distance of each other. Even the biggest Elgin real estate bull, I think, would be skeptical of the viability of all these stores competing in such proximity. Maybe two will survive. In which case, we'll end up with a couple of empty shells not unlike the one blighting the Otter Creek Shopping Center.

If tax revenues weren't an issue--and maybe they shouldn't be, it might be good to have a large office building--somebody's headquarters--or maybe even a new, architecturally-stunning Elgin High School on that spot. Now there's an idea...

I wrote this entry last night--though I didn't get around to posting it--after reading the stories in the Herald and the Courier. The Courier followed up with another story today, which shed more light on the subject. It seems that by "high-end," Mr. Sandor was referring to stores like Pier One, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Men's Wearhouse. The tax figure given in today's story is $1.8M rather than $1.6M.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

I forget to mention earlier that the December (2005) issue of Architectural Record has a small profile of the Renishaw building on the Sears/Prairie Stone campus. It was designed by annex|5, A. Epstein & Sons. I've often admired it on my visits to the Sears/Prairie Stone campus. If you haven't been to the Sears/Prairie Stone campus, you should check it out. It showcases an exemplary Prairie Style landscape. I hope that this sort of landscaping becomes a bigger trend in the area, because it's so much richer than a lawn and has the effect of anchoring the building, the organization and its culture to the local place, our place. It ties it to our land and by extension to our community.

I'm really glad that the City of Elgin landscaped the grounds around the Highlands club house using native plants, according to the Prairie Style. Three cheers for whoever was responsible for that. Perhaps it is asking too much, but I would like to see a preference for the Prairie Style codified via ordinance or whatever so that a number of municipal properties--namely Bluff City Cemetery, Lords Park and Wing Park--will be landscaped in accordance with the Prairie Style as described by Jens Jensen. I've been troubled by the sight of foreign and exotic trees planted in these different spaces, which I believe undermine our sense of place. When this place is like any other place, there won't be much of a reason for anyone to stay.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Somebody pointed out that what I've been calling Elgin's High Line is actually typically referred to as the "Low Line" to distinguish it from the "High Line" on the west side of the river. Just as well; I like "Low Line" even better. It has a seedy, authentic air :)

He also pointed out that the house that has blocked a portion of the Low Line was actually on a downtown Elgin house tour--an example of downtown revitalization! It is a nice house and they've done a great job with it. I don't object to their blocking the Low Line because that section (from Highland to Division) is so short anyway. For any rail to park conversion, I think Fulton to Highland would work fine.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Above is a picture of Festival Park that I took in the fall. As you can see, it's already a park; the waterfront is landscaped; there's a generous lawn; trees have been planted. I think this is a serviceable park. What are we going to get by adding $5,000,000 in "improvements?" A water fountain and a restroom? For five million dollars? How many times is that restroom going to be used? And imagine the cost of keeping it safe and clean; they'll probably add someone to Park's payroll just for that purpose.

The point I'm making is that we're putting in $5,000,000 and we're getting a marginal improvement--in my opinion not an improvement at all, but probably to most people, a marginal improvement. Five million dollars is a lot of money. Imagine what we could have done with $5,000,000. We could have bought a couple Henry Moores or Chillidas or commissioned an Anish Kapoor sculpture; we could have turned downtown Elgin into a sculpture garden. We could have converted the High Line. We could have found the first home for the Elgin Art Museum. We could have paid architecture fees for Gail Borden, and gotten something the world would have noticed. There are a lot of things we could have done. You think of six; fill in the blanks:

1- We could have ______________________ with $5,000,000!
2- We could have ______________________ with $5,000,000!
3- We could have ______________________ with $5,000,000!
4- We could have ______________________ with $5,000,000!
5- We could have ______________________ with $5,000,000!
6- We could have ______________________ with $5,000,000!

But instead of any of these things, we got a latrine, a fountain, and the promise of "a circus-like atmosphere." Time to make like Howard Beale, stick your head out the window and yell, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore!!"

Sunday, January 08, 2006

I had thought last week about nominating some organizations for the Elgin Image Award, but when I went to search for past winners--those who've won in the past five years are disqualified, there was no information to be found on the city web site or anywhere. So I didn't nominate anybody. How apropos though that this situation arose after I'd written my previous post about the link between information accessibility and passionate citizenry.

One of the organizations I'd considered nominating--if only playfully--was DSR (aka Drunken Style Records). DSR, whose membership, incidentally, is as diverse as Elgin, is responsible for what may be the only modern ballads composed as celebrations of the city of Elgin. Listen to them on this MySpace page. The relevant tracks are called City to Watch and My City.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Kathy Sierra's Creating Passionate Users blog is one of a handful of blogs that I follow. Though her subject is software development, what she says has general applicability. In a recent entry, she discusses creating user passion by helping users learn. She makes the point that we appreciate things more when we know more about them. I bring this up because I think this is true not only of music, art and consumer products, but also of cities and towns, places. The more people know about their city--its history, its institutions, etc., the more interest they take in it. It's just like anything else; if you know something about architectural styles, you can see a building in an entirely different light than somebody who can only describe a building as old or new, ugly or pretty; if you can look at a meadow and call plants by name, your appreciation of what's there will be far greater than somebody who looks out and sees nameless grass and "weeds."

E.C. Alft is an Elginite I greatly admire. I think what Mr. Aflt has done for Elgin is to fire passion in its people by instilling a sense of pride that comes only from a knowledge of history. When you've read about the city's past, when you've seen the pictures of days gone by, it changes the way that you perceive the city. You appreciate it more. You care about it more. You feel like you know it. In knowing it you build the basis for a relationship with it.

History is but one kind of information that can stoke passion. There are others: news, workings of our civic institutions and local government. Whatever the information, we should always be on the lookout for ways to make it more accessible to everybody in our city. We should be on the lookout for ways to create a passionate citizenry.