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Commuter trains power economy, revive downtowns, officials say
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COMMUTER TRAINS

Commuter trains power economy, revive downtowns, officials say

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What village officials bill as Orland Park's downtown doesn't look much different from the rest of the LaGrange Road corridor, a 2-mile retail mecca crammed with restaurants, malls and big box stores.

But that's starting to change as it kick-starts an ambitious plan to transform the area around LaGrange and 143rd Street into a transit-oriented development centered on the Metra station there.

“This station is important to us because we are building a downtown around it,” said Karie Friling, Orland Park's director of development services. “The mayor thought we needed a downtown. This has been his baby.”

A 295-unit, $65 million luxury apartment building dubbed Ninety7Fifty opened there two years ago. It is now 96 percent occupied. A $1.3 million hike-and-bike path now bridges LaGrange Road. Construction of a 120,000-square-foot University of Chicago Medical Center is slated to start in an empty lot just east of the train station this year. And a Mariano's grocery is going up across LaGrange Road along with a 230-unit apartment building.

Communities like Orland Park and its new downtown development hold important lessons for Northwest Indiana, which is gathering funds now for $1.2 billion in improvements for its South Shore commuter railroad, including its first extension to South Lake County suburbs.

"I would encourage every local community to go over there and talk to the development folks in Orland Park, or Arlington Heights, or Mundelein where they have all had railroad-centric planning," said Michael Noland, general manager of South Shore operator, Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District.

The South Shore is a major contributor to Northwest Indiana's economy, adding $427 million annually to personal income in the region and $2.6 billion in spending in goods and services, according to a study last year by Policy Analytics, of Indianapolis.

Metra's economic impact is commensurately larger, as it carries 24 times the passenger load of the South Shore on any given day. Those passengers ride from 241 station stops compared to just 13 on the South Shore.

But the old idea of train station communities receiving all the benefits of transit simply from the paychecks commuters haul back from the big city is fading, according to Yonah Freemark, a manager at Chicago's Metropolitan Planning Council specializing in transit oriented development.

Train-stop communities now want to leverage a younger generation's desire for transit options to build up their own downtowns. Projects like the University of Chicago Medical Center in Orland Park even introduce the possibility of reverse commutes from city to suburb.

There is now competition among Chicago suburbs when it come to transit-oriented development, which those communities see as a way to revive their central business districts and rebuild their tax base, Freemark said

"Transit-oriented development is about more than just train access," Freemark said. "It's about building vibrant communities."

South suburban communities are now playing catch-up with northern suburbs like Arlington Heights, which in the past 25 years has developed thousands of apartment units and hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail, restaurant and entertainment space in a downtown centered on its Metra station.

Lessons for NWI?

Northwest Indiana communities now looking forward to transit-oriented expansion can learn from the experiences of places like Orland Park and Arlington Heights, Freemark said. The most important, and sometimes hardest, lesson to learn is to respond to the market when it comes to laying plans, he said.

And none of the plans come without controversy. When Orland Park's board of trustees was ready to act on a final financing package for the Ninety7Fifty building, 200 residents showed up with concerns about the village backing the $63 million bond issue.

In Tinley Park, building a new $12 million Metra station at 80th Avenue three years ago, including a restaurant with fireplace, led some downtown merchants to think the village might be abandoning the station there.

The aim is to build up housing and retail around both stations, according to Tinley Park Planning Director Amy Connelly. The village's Legacy Code aims to preserve the historic character of its downtown. A farmers market and other activities in Zabrocki Plaza adjacent to the downtown Metra station are designed to make the area a round-the-clock venue.

In Homewood, just seven miles from the Indiana border, there are no high-rise luxury apartments or condos rising over its Metra/Amtrak station. But the station is in a downtown that is full of quality shops and restaurants.

Tree-shaded neighborhoods of well-kept homes are within walking and biking distance. Renowned artist Richard Hass has painted 14 of his illusion murals around downtown Homewood since the 1980s, giving it a unique and lasting tourist draw.

The village of Homewood so far has taken a more organic approach to development around its Metra/Amtrak station, with much of it done on a business-by-business basis, according to village Manager Jim Marino.

The village has used funds from its central business tax increment financing district to help finance worthy projects. Those contributions are sometimes used to offset what some businesses might perceive as a lower cost of doing business in Indiana, Marino said.

"It's because of that TIF district, and the money available to help those businesses, that our downtown has been a success," Marino said.

The TIF district is contributing $900,000 to the conversion of the former Great Lakes Bank building into a boutique hotel within site of the Metra station. Veterinarian and local businessman Claude Gendreau is sinking more than $5 million of his own money into the project.

The village is undertaking a $1.2 million streetscaping project, which will convert a block of Martin Avenue adjacent to the hotel into a pedestrian space along with a roundabout. But the village is planning even bigger projects.

An open meeting for village residents will take place Monday to explain plans for a science museum that would be developed in collaboration with San Francisco's Exploratorium at Pier 15. The San Francisco Exploratorium is a renowned science museum that attracts more than 1 million visitors per year.

"That will be a huge, huge development for us and a huge catalyst for our downtown," Marino said.






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