Have views in Riverside toward transit-oriented development – regarding density, height, uses and parking — changed in the past 15 years or so? By sometime next year residents may just find out.
In April, village officials received word that they’d been awarded a grant through the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) to examine zoning in the village’s commercial districts, both in downtown Riverside and along the Harlem Avenue corridor.
Valued at about $35,000, the grant itself is being funded by the Regional Transportation Authority. While the grant-funded study is seen as a follow up to the CMAP-led downtown comprehensive plan adopted by the village board in 2013, officials believe it’s also an opportunity to look at commercial zoning generally.
And with key commercial properties either available for development or about to go on the market for sale on Harlem Avenue and in downtown Riverside, there’s a belief the village needs another look at commercial zoning in an environment that’s different than when the village comprehensively overhauled its zoning code in 2003 and completed a transit-oriented development study for the central business district in 2006.
“We’ll be looking at the bulk regulations we have for those districts and see if they are inhibitors to current development trends and how to encourage context-sensitive designs, but allow for the kinds of development in demand now,” said Sonya Abt, community development director for the village of Riverside.
In addition to bulk regulations and density, the village may also want to consider changes to the boundaries of the commercial zoning districts themselves and/or the kinds of uses allowed in them. For example, does the village want to retain its emphasis on mixed-use development in commercial districts or allow purely residential developments, including townhomes, in commercial districts?
“We want to keep retail, but if you want to increase retail opportunities, you need the base to support them,” Abt said. “You need to find out: what’s the compromise? Those are the conversations that have to happen as we go through this process.”
Abt said the RTA in consultation with the village will determine the scope of the study and choose a planning firm to serve as a lead consultant. The hope is to have that consultant in place by fall. It could take up to a year to complete the study, which would include opportunities for residents to provide input.
Village President Ben Sells said the consultant would initially work with a steering committee, still to be chosen, comprising local planning officials and residents, including those with ties to the development community.
“I want to have the best zoning code for our size village that we can have,” Sells said. “I’m excited about this.”
While the purpose of the RTA-funded study is to provide recommendations for updating zoning in the village’s commercial districts, it’s somewhat similar to the 2006 transit-oriented development (TOD) study, funded in large part by Metra.
That study sparked some fears of overdevelopment in the village’s downtown and helped make the case for the construction of the then-controversial, four-story Village Center building at Longcommon Road and East Burlington Street.
The 2006 TOD study, the approval of the Village Center and an attempt to form a tax increment financing district in downtown Riverside drew sharp opposition that resulted in the most recent contested election for the village board and presidency.
Sells said he wants the final result of the zoning study to be a code that’s easy to navigate for developers and removes roadblocks that in the past have bogged down or discouraged commercial development.
“We don’t have much to offer in the way of economic incentives,” said Sells. “But if we make it easy for businesses to do business here, that’s worth money to them.”