You’d think that with its large tracts of commercial property — including one of the busiest regional shopping malls, a bustling Costco, a bona fide skyscraper and other big box retailers – that North Riverside’s approach to development would be comprehensive.
The reality is that for the past decade the village’s community development department has operated without a full-time director. And, while the department’s part-time employees have handled all of the complex development requests that have come their way, it’s been more of a reactive effort as applications flow in.
With the experience of failing big-box retailers Sears, Carson’s, Sports Authority, Toys R Us and H.H. Gregg in recent years, it was clear that approach needed to change. And the village’s foray into comprehensive planning last year, in addition to a change in the village administrator’s office, has led to a few needed changes in the way it should approach development in the future.
For the first time, perhaps since the commercial building boom of the 1970s, North Riverside is now looking at development through a prospective lens. Over the next year, a professional urban planner who has been hired as a consultant will assess the community development department and recommend how to best staff it in the future.
That planner is also leading a comprehensive look at land use in North Riverside as a way to reflect current trends and plan for the future, not simply react to the fortunes of big-box retailing and try to plug holes in that ever-leakier dyke.
It’s been a refreshing change of outlook for North Riverside, and one which is necessary. The North Riverside of the 1990s is history, and village officials must confront the challenges of the 21st century – municipal pension costs, the retail revolution from big boxes to online sales, aging infrastructure like streets, water lines and sewers.
Beyond the efforts of local elected and appointed officials, the shift in mindset will also affect residents. Again, gone are the days when retail sales taxes subsidize water bills, garbage pickup and vehicles stickers.
All of that aging infrastructure and the pensions of the police officers and firefighters that serve the village have to be funded somehow. Tools like red-light cameras may not be an available solution in the future, and residents need to realize they are the ones officials will turn to when there’s a financial crunch.
That’s why it’s so important to look at the future comprehensively. Not only the community development department, but how the village delivers police and fire services. Are there ways to consolidate services? What kind of staffing levels are sufficient?
North Riverside government’s turn toward future planning and making sure the village is prepared could have come sooner, but at least has not come later.
There’s a lot of uncertainty right now in the world, and the village’s effort to begin planning in the face of that uncertainty is welcome.