Critics of the design of a proposed makeover of East Burlington Street in downtown Riverside came out in force last week at a meeting of the Riverside Village Board. Nine people made public comments criticizing the plan as too faddish and not good enough for Riverside, calling for the village board to slow down the process and seek additional input.
But a majority of village board members, led by a forceful Village President Ben Sells, made it clear that they were in no mood to slow down and bring in additional designers or a new design team.
Tom Lupfer, the former chairman of the Riverside Economic Development Commission, repeated the criticisms of the design that he made a week earlier when the design was officially unveiled.
“This design is full of fads,” said Lupfer, who urged the board to slow down and get other landscape architects to work on the design. “This design is getting rushed through and I don’t know why.”
Aberdeen Marsh-Ozga, a member of the Riverside Historical Preservation Commission and Frederick Law Olmsted Society, agreed with Lupfer.
“We should, perhaps, really slow down and take the time to get this right,” said Marsh Ozga, who said she was only speaking for herself.
Greg Randall, a local architect and board member of the Olmsted Society, also criticized the design, which includes a curving concrete ribbon and brick paver sidewalks.
“We need to step back from the design and actually critique this intelligently and take the steps necessary to make the revisions that are going to make everyone on this board proud to have been a member of the board in 20 years,” Randall said. “What I’ve seen in the design feels like a student’s effort, and it just needs the additional critique, the editing that is necessary to bring this up to the level of respect that Olmsted deserves, and we deserve, frankly.
“We all live here; we all want to be proud.”
Randy Brockway, a landscape architect himself, criticized the choice of Christopher B. Burke Engineering to do the streetscape design.
“The selection of the Burke engineering firm was a mistake,” Brockway said. “Their building is full of engineers. This is a project for landscape architects.”
Dianna LaMantia, the chairwoman of the village’s Landscape Advisory Commission, also called on the village board to slow down and to push Burke to improve their design.
“If you push the designer that you have right now to a higher level they will rise to it,” LaMantia said. “Not enough time has been spent to get this fabulous.”
Near the end of the meeting, after the most of the critics had left, Trustee Doug Pollock asked whether fellow board members would support asking village staff to look into the feasibility of issuing a request for proposals or a request for qualifications for additional designers to work on the design.
“I begged for an RFP when we first got the grant,” Pollock said.
Trustees Ellen Hamilton and Michael Foley at first seemed to indicate interest in this but Sells was strongly opposed and carried the day with a forceful argument.
“We have an opportunity to get something done,” Sells said. “To say at the 11th hour to say we’re going to start over would be the death knell of this plan.”
Sells defended the work of Burke Engineering and its landscape architect, Doug Gotham.
“I have seen their dedication, their creativity,” Sells said. “The fact is that without Christopher Burke we wouldn’t have gotten this grant. It’s very clear to me that when you have a design team with the skill that Christopher Burke brings to it in conjunction with the engineering component and the interface with [the Illinois Department of Transportation].
“When you can get all three of those things in one place, which is one of reasons that we chose Christopher Burke to do our public works projects, that’s a great advantage.”
Sells said trustees should be leery of references to Fredrick Law Olmsted in this instance. He said Olmsted’s original plans for Riverside did not even include a commercial downtown.
“If you look at the Olmsted General Plan, the area that we now call the CBD [central business district] is a row of homes backed up to the tracks,” Sells said. “Olmsted had no downtown plan, so to attempt to bootstrap some type of Olmstedian legacy with regard to the downtown plan is a red herring, to be gentle about it.”
Sells said while he respected the people who spoke at the meeting, he also criticized emails sent out encouraging people to come to the village board meeting and speak out against the design. Sells said the village board is capable of making the right decision.
“I think we make the decision and lead this village forward and not let a small, vocal group who was incited to come here tonight — you all saw the emails — so that they could ‘stick it to the man,'” Sells said. “If we’re going to allow that kind of thing to derail this process that’s our legacy, and I think we can do better.”
Sells said that he would pass on criticisms and suggestions of the current design to Burke.
“Are we surprised that in matters of taste there is disagreement?” Sells asked. “Of course not. I say that we should pass this on to a respected, award-winning design team that we are lucky to have and have them come back and show us the fifth iteration [of the plan], but I would not derail this at this point.”
Trustee Patricia Collins said waiting for additional input could put the grant funding that will pay for most of the project at risk.
“I do not trust that the funds will be there in 2016,” Collins said. “Given the situation with the state of Illinois and the federal government, I want to start digging tomorrow. I think this is a good plan.”
Foley said that he hopes the Christopher Burke team will improve their design.
“I’m excited about this project,” Foley said. “We may not nail it, but it’s OK.”