By Siraj Asfahani | December 2, 2011
Over the years, The Lakota Group has had the privilege and opportunity to work in many rural towns and small communities throughout the Midwest, ranging in assignments from designing new waterfronts to designing streetscapes and preparing downtown master plans. During the last three years, our Main Street revitalization and historic preservation work has also taken us to small towns in Oregon, Iowa, Texas and Maryland. Despite the challenges of finding financial resources to conduct planning activities, many small communities view planning as essential to maintaining community character and ensuring their long-term economic stability.
Interestingly, while we’ve contracted with many small town municipalities for planning and urban design work, Lakota, for the first time, has been engaged directly by a Main Street program to develop a new downtown master plan. This past August, Main Street Momence, the Main Street program in Momence, Illinois, has asked us to prepare a downtown master plan to support of their ongoing historic preservation-based revitalization work. Momence is located in east central Kankakee County near the Illinois-Indiana border and is 23 miles east of Kankakee, the county seat, and only 55 miles south of Chicago. The plan’s development is being supported by grants from the Community Foundation of Kankakee County and the Earl D. Schoeffner Charitable Trust. Preparing the downtown master plan provides an opportunity for the Main Street Momence and the community to build upon its current revitalization efforts by exploring ways in which to enhance the downtown’s physical appearance, land use and economic base. Main Street Momence was established in 2005 and follows the patented Main Street Four-Point Approach to revitalizing traditional commercial districts developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The organization also participates in the Illinois Main Street program, the statewide downtown revitalization program housed in the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
Like many Main Street communities in Illinois and throughout the Midwest, downtown Momence has a compact, walkable physical form complete with an intact collection of Victorian-era commercial architecture. Downtown is concentrated on four square blocks located just north of the Kankakee River and the beautiful and well-maintained Island Park, which was developed during the 1920s as one of the county’s first recreational destinations. In fact, during the early decades of the 20th century, Island Park attracted many Chicagoans seeking an escape from the congestion of city neighborhoods for the peacefulness and tree-shaded landscapes of the country. Downtown’s riverfront area provides a unique setting to view Island Park and the Kankakee River and often attracts local fisherman looking for the elusive big catch.
However, like many other old river towns where industries often occupied prime riverfront locations, the Momence community has a few obstacles in fully utilizing its waterfront, including an existing manufacturer occupying several acres along the Kankakee River and municipal parking lots interspersed between several remaining commercial buildings. Realizing the waterfront’s potential as a catalyst for new economic and recreational activity downtown is a critical planning goal determined by the Master Plan Steering Committee, established by the City of Momence and Main Street to guide the development of the master plan.
Beyond the riverfront, the rehabilitation and reuse of downtown’s historic commercial buildings is another important planning goal. Since 2005, Main Street Momence has done an extraordinary job in encouraging several storefront and façade improvements. In 2007, Main Street pooled its volunteer resources to undertake the successful nomination of downtown’s four-block core in the National Register of Historic Places, an exceptional effort for any volunteer-led historic preservation organization. The National Register listing has resulted in at least one historic preservation tax credit project with the possibility of others down the road. Despite the recent successes, other storefronts and facades are in need of repair and maintenance while some of the larger downtown buildings, such as the old Momence Theater and the Madsen Hotel building, which are partially vacant and underutilized, are excellent rehabilitation and adaptive use candidates. Can the Theater be reborn as a functioning theater again? Should the old Madsen Hotel be reused into new apartments? We;ll see what the answers will be.
While these questions and possible solutions are explored during the planning process, one thing that is a significant advantage for the community is the high level of design authenticity in downtown’s remaining commercial buildings. Despite the repair and maintenance needs for several downtown buildings, and the few that still need new storefront improvements, the majority of buildings, however, are remarkably intact and have changed little since they were first built. Others have storefronts and facades constructed with indigenous materials such as the “Tiffany” glazed brick that were manufactured by the Tiffany Brick Company, located in Momence during the first decades of the 20th Century. The buildings and the stories they tell about the community’s history help to build downtown Momence’s brand image as a truly authentic Illinois small town.
Main Street Momence and Lakota are nearing the halfway point in developing the master plan and recently conducted a public workshop on November 18 to present an assessment of downtown’s strengths, weaknesses and opportunities, along with a preliminary land use plan and concepts for streetscape enhancements and wayfinding signage. Designs and sketches for how two of downtown’s most “design challenged” commercial buildings were also presented. Lakota associates Kevin Clark and Dominic Suardini are the lead designers for the master plan project.
In addition to downtown streetscape and other physical improvements, Lakota prepared two planning concepts for the future development of the riverfront. These concepts were perhaps the most anticipated by the community since capitalizing on downtown’s underutilized riverfront ranked as a high priority for many community stakeholders. The first concept proposes a “minimal” design scenario with a new riverwalk along the riverfront’s existing open areas. The riverwalk would incorporate cantilevered lookouts at certain points for strollers, visitors and fishermen. Existing historic buildings would remain but new infill development would be encouraged to introduce additional uses such as restaurants and retail to help spur new investment activity along the riverfront zone. The second concept is more visionary as it looks at what the downtown riverfront could be like if the remaining industrial uses along the Kankakee River were relocated, opening up additional land for an extended riverwalk system and other elements such as additional green space, an outdoor amphitheater, public art and a new community center. This “max” design scenario has the most potential to connect the riverfront to Island Park and to remake this part of downtown as a compelling attraction for both residents and visitors.
The downtown planning process will continue into the coming year with a final master plan completion date scheduled for March 2012. Once adopted, the master plan should provide strategic directions for future public and private sector investments in downtown and how a Main Street revitalization approach can be supported by long-term thinking on downtown’s future land use and design.
Stay tuned for additional blog updates on Main Street Momence and its downtown master plan!