By Bob Skolnik
The Village of Riverside is applying for a state grant worth a little more than a million dollars to spruce up the downtown section of Burlington Avenue with the goal of making the heart of Riverside's downtown more modern and pedestrian-friendly.
Village leaders say if they are awarded the grant, it would go a long way toward revitalizing the downtown area.
"It would completely transform the street," said Village President Ben Sells. "The impact it would have on our downtown would be transformative. It would basically be a new main street."
This week, the village is sending an application for an Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program (ITEP) grant. The ITEP grant uses federal money, funneled through states, to fund improvements designed to promote alternative forms of transportation.
If the village receives the grant, it would have to put up 20 percent of the money to redo the street. Last week the Riverside village board unanimously voted to apply for the grant and set a maximum of $295,000 that the village would contribute toward the project. About $56,000 of the village's share would come out of its share of gas tax revenue and water and sewer fund revenue.
Village officials are optimistic about their chances with the grant because they already have received a Surface Transportation Program (STP) grant to repave Burlington Avenue next summer. Having the STP grant already in hand, they believe, will make the ITEP application more attractive to state officials.
"We found out in the last six weeks that this is the last year you can combine an ITEP grant with an STP project," Sells said.
So village officials acted quickly. A committee, made up of Sells, Village Manager Peter Scalera, and advisory commission members Charles Pipal, Tom Lupfer and Paul Sterner, met with the village's consulting firm, Burke Engineering. They decided to let Burke design a preliminary concept plan to send to the state, but if Riverside is awarded the grant that plan will likely change.
"The suggested plan will have some modifications because it will need to go through the various commissions for review as well as input from the community. The initial draft at least is trying to promote a more pedestrian-friendly street," Scalera said.
The concept plan would dress up Burlington Avenue from Longcommon Road to the village's new "green" parking lot, a distance of approximately one-tenth of a mile. The street would be narrowed and sidewalks widened, with 11 new trees planted along the street and decorative planters, permeable sidewalks, benches, bike racks, and drinking fountains installed.
In the westernmost section of the street, the width would be reduced from 49.5 to 40 feet. The northern sidewalk would be expanded from 8.1 to 12.5 feet wide, while the southern sidewalk would stay the same width. A little farther east, the width of Burlington Avenue would decrease to 30 from 39 feet. The south sidewalk would expand to 25 feet from 21.5 and the north sidewalk would be widened to 18.5 feet
The expanded sidewalks and narrower street would result in some loss of on-street parking, a change that could concern some merchants along Burlington. Scalera said he did not know the exact number of parking spaces that would be lost.
"There is going to be some reduction in parking, primarily on the north side of the street," Scalera said.
Scott Zimmer, the owner of Chew Chew Restaurant, said he has not seen the concept plan but would be willing to lose a few parking spaces to spruce up Burlington Avenue.
"I think the streetscape on Burlington needs a lot of work," Zimmer said. "It's not very functional right now for outdoor dining, bicycle parking, nor is it very walkable. I'm in favor of improvements to all of these areas, but I'm not sure when we talk about removing parking what exactly that means. Is it one space or is it 20 spaces, and the location of those spaces. I don't know. I'm in favor of sacrificing a few parking spaces if needed in order to make the downtown plan come to life. I'm tired of seeing no one on the sidewalk after 5 o'clock. We'd like to see more activity down here."
Scalera said the village would find out in a few months whether it will be awarded the grant.