English Garden Among Ideas for Vacant Downtown Properties
The Village of Clarendon Hills is looking into temporary uses for several empty sites in the central business district.
“It’s a win-win for everyone.”
That’s what Clarendon Hills resident Mike Sutton said about his idea to turn the currently vacant Burlington Avenue property that once contained the Clarendon Hills Police Department into a public garden that Sutton says would bring the community together for a good cause.
Sutton, who said he drew inspiration from the ideas of writer James Howard Kunstler and the paintings of Claude Monet, discussed with the Village Board at its March 19 meeting his proposal to create an English garden at the location that would feature donations from Clarendon Hills businesses and be maintained by residents, including kids and retired people.
All of the items in the garden—plants, benches, gazebos—would be auctioned off and all proceeds from the sale of those items would go toward Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago via Maggie’s Miracle Makers, a foundation that raises money to support young patients with cystic fibrosis.
When items are auctioned off, new ones would hopefully replace them.
“We’d be working together as a town on something we care about and can be proud of,” Sutton said.
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The old police department property is one of several vacant sites the Village of Clarendon Hills is exploring temporary uses for to attract attention to the downtown area. Village staff is also discussing ideas for 5-21 Walker Ave. (the former Market Town site), 103 Prospect Ave. (at the corner of Prospect and Park Avenue), and 301 Park Ave. (just west of Walker).
Village manager Randy Recklaus said the village would welcome potential developers to these sites “with open arms,” but because of the fragile state of the economy, staff isn’t holding its breath.
“We want to start talking about what we could do with some of these properties in the interim,” Recklaus said.
Recklaus said Sutton’s idea is a good example of what the village is going for.
“We really want to look at out-of-the-box ways of looking at these properties,” Recklaus said.
Besides an English garden, the Burlington property could become the home of Community Presbyterian Church’s produce garden, or it could be turned into a small parking lot for shoppers, according to a memo from director of community development Mike Brown to the Village Board.
Similarly, the privately owned Walker property could be temporarily used as a parking lot for Metra commuters or downtown patrons, Brown’s memo reads. It could also be a good spot for a farmer's market site in the summer and fall, or a plot for special events like Daisy Days. The Prospect property, also owned privately, could be turned into a “pocket park.”
The village is open to ideas for temporary uses of the Park Avenue property, which is owned by Clarendon Hills.
Recklaus said the village is currently in talks with a prospective buyer of the police department property. An agreement with a developer would trump any temporary ideas, including Sutton’s.
While Village President Tom Karaba said a retail development there would be the ideal result, green space would be good for the village, too, especially in the prime Burlington location along the train tracks. He said it’s “a hole in the ground” right now.
“We want to turn that corner into something that’s aesthetically pleasing,” Karaba said.
Sutton, a 29-year resident of Clarendon Hills, thinks the garden idea could be a model for surrounding communities. People who ride in and out of Chicago on the nearby Metra would take notice.
“I want something that will pop,” Sutton said.
Four groups of volunteers would be needed for the project, according to Sutton's plan: an advisory group who would get the ball rolling and perform the marketing for the garden; a landscape architecture team to design the garden; a construction team to carry out the plan; and a maintenance team to keep the garden thriving.
The English garden would not need village dollars, Sutton said. Instead, he wants local businesses to donate all the items. Some donations would derive from natural connections—flower shops donating plants, for example—but they wouldn’t have to be. Sutton said a bank could donate a gazebo or some wooden benches. He said a coffee shop could donate its space for project-team meetings.
In a time when society and technology are pulling residents apart and isolating people from one another, the garden would encourage closeness among community members.
“I think that’s always getting lost,” Sutton said.
There’s no specific timeline for establishing the downtown temporary uses. Recklaus said the village is reaching out to the owners of private vacant properties and has received positive feedback from one of the two private property owners. They haven’t connected with the other.
“Our first choice is to see these [properties] get developed and put into the chain of commerce,” Recklaus said. “But absent that, we want to have a Plan B.”