Downtown Development: Questions & Responses

Through focusing on our economic development initiatives and strategic plan, our historic downtown has come a long way in a few short years. The early part of 2017 saw 18 storefront vacancies in the downtown, and today there are only five empty storefronts; three are currently under construction to open businesses.

One area that has been on the sale block for some time was Peterson’s Hardware. The redevelopment of this site has been a pillar of Village planning efforts for over a decade. We share in the excitement of its purchase in April and the possibilities it brings to the downtown.

The purchase of the former Peterson’s Hardware property by Marbella LLC will follow the development process required for all other developments in downtown Lemont. This September demolition of the north side of Canal Street was approved at a public meeting by the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC). While no plans have yet been submitted to the Village, we've met with the owners, as have many others in their newly opened Lemont headquarters. They launched a website to share their vision for the site, which includes new downtown housing and storefront commercial space. When ready, redevelopment will be reviewed by the HPC, the Planning & Zoning Commission, and the Village Board. All of these meetings are posted on the Village website and are open for the community to attend and participate. In our commitment to transparency, the Village launched an online Development Map to provide shared, free access to every document that is part of our public process - http://www.lemont.il.us/Development-Projects.  Marbella, LLC is the same company that saved old St. Pat's School from demolition through adaptive reuse as nine luxury apartment units, St. James Academy.

Another exciting initiative taking place is The Forge Lemont Quarries outdoor adventure park, a public-private partnership between The Forge, Lemont Township, and the Village. The adventure park will become a destination for many visitors coming to experience our community for the first time, with Phase 1 slated to open in the summer of 2020. The quarries have been a recreational focus for decades with CITGO Petroleum’s grants for restoration and involvement with Lemont High School, quarry clean-up days and tours given in the area by the Historical Society. Many other initiatives by Village commissions and board members took place over several years. To have The Forge bring this area to life is truly remarkable.

Having the support of our community is critical to the success of any project. These developers and entrepreneurs have chosen our village because they see our potential and the beauty that surrounds us. These are exciting times for the strength of our historic downtown and this excitement will fuel existing business owners and entrepreneurs throughout the village. Home purchases and rentals increase, causing foot traffic to increase, which in turn benefits the entire community. Lemont began its life as a bustling canal town full of hard-working people, and we believe we're ready to recapture a bit of that old town magic.

We are more than proud to support the businesses that filled downtown Lemont over the past two years. Several new restaurants opened, including Wooden Paddle, Digs on Canal, Hughie McClafferty’s, and Corner Stone Tavern. Other businesses expanded like Pollyanna Brewing Company, Bottles and Inspired Needle. Front Street Cantina relaunched as the fantastic Next Mex. Higher Grounds Coffee Company and Lemont Valley Market opened to meet a niche in our downtown. B-Side Records and Genuine Barbers bring in some vintage cool. They all joined the many established restaurants, taverns, retailers, salons, and services here for you. 

A Downtown Merchants Association (DMA) was launched so the Village could hear the needs of our small business community and build collaboration among shop owners. Building Improvement “façade” grants returned for the first time in five years to help property owners maintain their historic buildings. There has been a huge growth in downtown Lemont property sales. New wayfinding signage was installed throughout downtown, including new parking signage to help guide residents and visitors eager to experience the growing vitality in our downtown.

Last year’s holiday season was lit up with holiday lights and decoration sponsored by the Downtown Merchants Alliance and Artistic Holiday Designs. It was overwhelmingly received and created much excitement during the holiday season in the downtown.

Downtown's annual summer events - the Lemont Legends Cruise Nights, Sunset Soirees, and Heritage Fest - bring thousands to Lemont and help our downtown thrive. Events organized through the hard work of local businesses, such as Beer Fest, Market on Canal, Giving Back to Lemont, Oktoberfest, and the Pirate Pub Crawl, bring thousands more. Events organized by the Lemont Area Historical Society and the Lemont High School Educational Foundation have all been smash successes. Next Mex and Gelsosomo's sponsored several charity events throughout the year. And this year our farmer's market, Tuesday's on Talcott, returned downtown and continues through October. We're looking forward to Lemontster Days and all the fun to be had in Lemont.

In July, the Village announced a Downtown Focus Group to ensure public input remains part of our future growth. Over a dozen residents applied to volunteer for this group, which has already held its first meeting. A set day of the month for the group will be determined, and these meetings will be open to the public.

We look forward to our future!

MEETINGS:

  • The HPC meets on the 2nd Thursday of every month.
  • The PZC meets on the 1st Wednesday of every month.
  • The Village Board holds a meeting on the 2nd and 4th Monday of every month and a Committee of the Whole on the 3rd Monday of every month.
  • The newly created downtown commission will be communicating their meeting dates in the near future.
  • All agendas and packets are posted on the Village website.
  • Please check our Village calendar for meeting information and for any cancellations or rescheduled meeting dates.

Our Vision that we uphold is, "The Village of Lemont is a thriving, family-oriented, and fiscally-sound community with a wide range of housing, business, and recreational opportunities.  Lemont provides a safe, attractive, and welcoming environment with a true sense of community for our residents, visitors and businesses.

There have been a number of public questions regarding the former Peterson's Hardware site, downtown's viability, and the development process in general.  Below are the questions that we are receiving along with our responses.

QUESTIONS & RESPONSES:  


Q1.  Two years ago you shared a 10-point plan to drive economic growth.  Can you please share that again?

R.   Our overall plan is to continue to add quality growth in infrastructure, buildings and businesses that will enhance our home values and provide the necessary stores, restaurants and recreation. To better increase our personal home values we must have a vibrant downtown with accessible transportation and amenities.

Q2.  Can you discuss the focus as well as the progress of this plan?

R.   We have tried to enhance and add value throughout the entire town. Many new restaurants opened, some of which sat vacant for a while, including Fork and Spoon, Wooden Paddle, Corner Stone Tavern and the most recently opened Rosebud Lemont. We have filled the vacant beloved bowling alley and Chipain's grocer with Pete's Fresh.  In addition, we have recruited soon to be tenants and much needed fueling stations on the difficult sites located on the southwest side of State Street and Archer Avenue, as well as the 16 acres of Village owned land on 83 and Main.

Q3.  What changes have been made to encourage this growth?

R.   First, we needed to make economic growth a major initiative and hired staff experienced to recruit and create an environment for businesses to want to invest in our town and grow. Business investors are scarce and require 100% attention throughout the recruitment cycle.

Q4.  What do you mean by the business recruitment cycle?

R.   It is the toughest and a very time consuming process that starts with recruiting a potential business/investor and continues well through the first day of opening.  Such investments are scarce as can be proven by dilapidated buildings, sometimes sitting empty for several years.  Unfortunately, we cannot simply pick and choose when and what type of developments occur

Q5.  Are there negative consequences to too much economic growth?

R.  Growth brings change and change can be very emotional.  Our challenge as a board is to bring the best quality investments into town, while at the same time, having to balance the needs of the business investor.  There's no such thing as a perfect project and the approval process is based on what is best for our community as a whole.  We recognize this may unfortunately impact certain residents in a negative way.

Q6.  Can you talk about the development plan for downtown?

R.  In order to have a vibrant downtown, we need to have the businesses and amenities that attract customers, population density to support business, and accessible parking and transportation.  Each one of the above is dependent on the other.

Q7.  How does the former Peterson's Hardware property align with the Village's overall economic plan?

R. As Lemont’s historic core and a key area of commercial activity, the vitality of Downtown Lemont is a key priority. The proximity to Lemont’s Metra Station makes the former Peterson’s Hardware property one of the top sites in downtown for Transit-Oriented Development, or TOD, which promotes walkable, higher-density mixed-use development connected to retail and business services around transportation areas. Residents drawn to TOD housing appreciate the convenience of being near the commuter rail and the amenities of downtown. Business owners downtown love having customers within walking distance!

Over the decades many plans for the downtown area have been completed. These plans echo the consistent refrain of all Lemont’s plans; the importance of a vibrant downtown to the community. A 2015 Developer Discussion Panel convened by the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) and Urban Land Institute (ULI) listed the property as one of 3 TOD Priority sites and called on the Village to focus redevelopment efforts on the north side of Canal Street and to encourage multi-family rental residential development in the downtown area. Many of the key recommendations have already been implemented, including a housing market study.

As stated in the Village’s comprehensive pan, downtown represents an area of significant prior investment by the Village. From 1999 to 2010, over $5.4 million of TIF funding has been spent on public infrastructure improvements in the downtown TIF district, and nearly $1 million has been spent on marketing, façade grants, and other improvement efforts. Significant private investment has also taken place during this time period, the most obvious of which is the 82-unit Front Street Lofts condominium project. But many smaller, yet substantial other private investments have been made to update and restore the many smaller and often historic buildings downtown.

Q8. Is it true the Village is evaluating updating the downtown district ordinance? 

R. Yes! We are always looking to improve the Village’s Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) in order to update antiquated provisions in the code and to further align with the board’s vision for development. In the past five years, the UDO has been amended nine times. Current evaluations are considering stricter regulations for multi-family housing and requiring a public hearing at Planning and Zoning Commission meetings (PZC).

Q9. Tax Incremental Financing Districts (TIF District) – what does it mean and how does it impact the downtown?

R. There are two TIF districts in downtown Lemont. TIF districts help the Village invest in downtown with funding generated by the incremental increases in property taxes generated by redevelopment. Amenities such as the Village parking garage on River Street, surface parking lots, downtown lighting, sidewalks, and other infrastructure have been paid for through TIF districts. They are critical funding tools that allow the Village to invest in downtown Lemont.

Q10. Is it true that the development review process could “bypass” a review by the Planning & Zoning Commission? 

R. Not all development in the Village requires a review by the PZC. In 2018, the PZC heard 24 cases; in 2019, we have had 15 applications to date. All of the case files for this year are online at https://www.lemont.il.us/754/Development-Projects.

Development of a permitted use that does not require any variations to Village code never requires PZC review. That is not a bypass, rather, it’s called development “by right,” as it is permitted within the UDO.

All new construction is reviewed by the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) to ensure its design is appropriate for the Lemont Historic District, as are alterations to existing buildings.

Q11. What could a developer build “by right” in Downtown Lemont without deviations from the code?

R. We all know how unique downtown Lemont is, and the Village’s zoning code seeks to capture and enhance its special charm. To guide development, downtown Lemont is divided into six different “street types” with varying hierarchies.

The Downtown District (DD) zoning code uniquely regulates the type of review and approval in a manner unlike other parts of Lemont. There are specific urban design and architectural standards. The DD is divided into a hierarchy of six street types, each with its own purpose, bulk regulations such as setbacks, lot coverage, height, and specific architectural requirements. Each is illustrated with photographs and drawings to describe the intent of the street type.

There are 42 permitted uses allowed downtown, including multi-family housing and many commercial and civic uses. Any of these would be allowed by right. New construction would have to meet the urban design and architectural standard of the DD, which provide downtown-specific regulations for building elevations, fenestration, doors, overhangs, storefronts, fences, columns, arches, piers, porches, roofs and gutters. New Construction on “Main Street” street types (which includes portions of Main Street, Stephen Street, Canal Street, and Lemont Street) provide the largest by-right buildings with a height of 3 stories or 37 ft. on the corner and a maximum of 160 ft. wide, with maximum lot coverage of 80%. Residential uses are prohibited on the first floor of Main Street type streets. Properties with commercial storefronts on the first floor and multi-family housing on the floors above is known as “mixed use,” which is only found in Lemont in our downtown.

Q12. Why are developers seeking to build higher than is presently permitted by downtown ordinance?

R. It is largely a matter of economics. Development costs are high for mixed use properties, averaging over $200 per sq. ft. Most of downtown prohibits residential uses on the first floor, which has an effect of limiting how many dwelling units can fit on a site without going higher. A three story building can only have two stories of dwelling units. While this may have been a popular model in the past, construction costs, building codes, and other regulations have made smaller scale mixed-use difficult to finance. A development pro forma evaluates the cost of construction and other expenses as offset by potential revenue. Height becomes a factor as developers plan for the number of units (operating income) needed to make funding possible. Developers seek additional height to add the number of revenue-generating units needed to balance their investment and debt. Developers may also seek to “balance their site” with additional amenities such as covered parking and open space which could require additional height in order to provide for the units to achieve the operating income for the project.

Q13. There are concerns regarding the potential impact to the present views of the downtown. How will a building over three stories affect the views/landscape of the downtown? 

R. As part of an application, a sightline study would be required to evaluate how a building will impact Lemont’s viewshed. This study places an architectural rendering within the landscape and shows a view from various locations using street photography.

Q14. Can the Village legally prohibit multi-family rental developments? 

R. No. The Village can and does regulate where multi-family housing is permitted, just as it regulates where attached housing (townhomes and duplexes) and detached housing (your typical single-family home) is located. Multi-family housing is permitted in downtown Lemont, where the building density, walkability, and transportation amenities make multi-family housing an appropriate use. And all of the above housing types are currently being rented in Lemont.

Owner-occupied vs. renter-occupied housing is not a zoning “use,” it is a form of property ownership and protected by our property rights and further, in some instances, Federal law such as the Fair Housing Act.

Q15. What is the process for approval of a mixed-use development?

R. It depends if the proposal is by-right or is seeking approval for variations, special uses and/or planned unit developments. Variations, special uses and planned unit developments require an application to the PZC, which includes public notice and a public hearing. The PZC makes a recommendation to the Village Board, which will hear the application at a Committee of the Whole and then approve or deny the development at a Village Board meeting.

Additionally, per the UDO, there are Type I and Type II reviews, which are called for based on location or “situations where the proposed size, height, or density and attendant potential impacts of the development on surrounding areas is deemed much greater and therefore a discretionary review is warranted.” For Type II reviews, a public hearing at the Village Board is called for.

Lastly, most of the DD is coterminous with Lemont’s Historic District No. 1. Properties within the historic district must meet the requirements of Article III of the UDO, Historic Preservation. The Village’s historic preservation procedures require a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) and provide two routes for approval, Minor Alterations (staff approval) and Major Alterations. 

Q16. Where can citizens find out about updated information as this development progresses through the process?

R. The Village has created a web page devoted to the downtown development where information will be regularly updated. You may also view the Village’s meeting calendar on our website home page.

Q17. What is the purpose of Village commissions in respect to the approval process?

R. Members of the HPC and PZC are appointed by the Mayor with the consent of the Village Board. The HPC will review and approve or deny COAs, among other duties. The PZC makes recommendations to the Village Board through a vote to recommend or deny an application. Often, the PZC will add conditions to their vote.

Q18. Will homeowners absorb the incentives a developer may ask for?

R. Absolutely not! Economic Development incentives take a number of forms, but they are typically “pay as you go,” meaning the Village shares a portion of revenue created by the value of new development (for example from sales tax collected or a property’s increased value from new development). It is important to remember the incentive is paid first by the new development or business first, and then the Village rebates an agreed amount.

Q19. Will there be affordable housing in Downtown Lemont?

R. The Illinois Housing Development Agency (IHDA) provides tax credits to finance the development of affordable housing. These credits are prioritized for development in “Opportunity Areas” and Lemont is not an IHDA Opportunity Area.

Q20. How much is rent going to be?

R. This of course depends on the number of bedrooms, square footage, and other amenities. It is difficult to speculate. However, studies have shown that base rents for 1 bedroom apartments could be approximately $1,700. Other factors that could raise rental rates include floor location, storage, pets, administrative fees, services, etc. Comparables in neighboring communities would include Orland Park, Lisle, and Naperville.

Q21. Why would a developer build rental units as opposed to selling condos?

R. While new Federal Housing Administration (FHA) rules hope to make financing easier for condos, it is reported that securing a mortgage for a condo remains more difficult for buyers, particularly first-time buyers, and mixed-use properties are even harder to underwrite. This makes condo construction a difficult undertaking, highly dependent on pre-sales, with construction loans that demand more equity and carry higher interest rates.

Today’s luxury, upscale rental units are “condo quality” and feature all the in-unit amenities one would expect in a condo. As such, should housing and financing trends change, a luxury rental building is well positioned to convert to a condominium. There are also many studies and real world examples that show today’s customers are embracing rentals as way to have maintenance-free housing and a high level of unique amenities, prioritizing lifestyle over home ownership.

A study showed that Lemont is well-positioned for a successful apartment development given the age and income characteristics of our resident market area, stating “13.3 percent of all market area households are under the age of 35, while another 21.3 percent fall between the ages of 55 and 64,” adding these are two strong age cohorts for rental housing.

Q22. For development in the historic downtown district, won’t the developer have to follow certain criteria?

R. Yes, of course! The UDO regulates the use, bulk, building materials, architectural standards, design standards, street standards, architectural review and a Certificate of Appropriateness from the Historic Preservation Commission. Downtown properties have the most extensive development review process and regulations within the Village.

Q23. With all the empty storefronts in the Lofts, why would the development assume that their storefronts would be filled?

R. We’re happy to announce there are no commercial units for sale at The Lofts, it is 100% occupied. Please visit Next Mex, Lemont Valley Market, Edward Jones, Primerica, Rive Nail Studios and The Forge. Tru Foods is opening soon, with a fresh food carry out and cooking classes concept fronting their commercial kitchen. Other units are in for permits and will serve as administrative offices for local businesses.

The Village’s Downtown District REQUIRES first floor storefronts on Main Street, Stephen Street, Canal Street, and Lemont Street north of Main. Mixed use properties on these streets are meeting the requirements of the UDO.

Q24. Where in the process is the Marbella development I saw online?

R. The property owner submitted an application for Certificate of Appropriateness for demolition of the properties better known as Peterson’s Hardware. At a public meeting on September 12, 2019, the HPC approved demolition for the buildings on the north side of Canal Street but denied demolition for the south side. The owner has indicated they will return to the HPC to seek approval.

For new construction, the development process with the Village is initiated when a developer submits a Village application for technical review, for zoning (such as variation, special use, or planned unit development), or an application for construction. As of September, 2019, there have been no applications submitted to the PZC or the Building Division.