Revitalizing DeKalb

The objective was clear—to restore downtown DeKalb, Ill., to its former glory as the centerpiece of the community.

Pedestrian-friendly streetscapes were key to revitalizing downtown DeKalb, Illinois. Courtesy of Hitchcock Design Group

To be successful, the city formed a revitalization task force and commissioned a study to determine ways to bring economic improvment to this historically important area.

Despite the efforts of many, a variety of factors had debilitating effects on the area over the last several decades. An increasing number of local and regional retail competitors in easily accessible locations gave residents new shopping destinations to choose from, which led retailers located in downtown to lose the customers’ patronage.

Additionally, vacancies, deteriorating properties, and utilitarian streetscapes weakened the downtown’s overall appearance and image. The resulting lower traffic volumes and relatively wide streets allowed vehicles to move through the area at higher speeds, which in turn, decreased pedestrian comfort and safety.

Located a short distance from the main campus of Northern Illinois University—the region’s largest educational institution—downtown DeKalb is centrally situated within the city, and has successfully maintained its own cultural identity despite the many changes that have occurred over the years.

Due to its location at the crossroads of two state highways and close proximity to a network of interstate highways, the community also enjoys easy access to some of the region’s top amenities.

Additionally, the city is located on a major railway corridor that allows the possibility for commuter service in the future.

Recognizing all of the positive attributes this community has to offer, city leadership sought ways to increase revenue for the area and once again restore downtown to the destination it was previously.

Spice It Up

Among the many items listed in the plan to help revitalize the area, the need for expanded parking, improved traffic circulation, and enhanced streetscaping was prominent.

During the information-gathering process, community stakeholders were nearly unanimous in their consensus that the streetscapes needed to be improved. The final study created a long-term plan that called for a rejuvenated historic retail core that was compact and walkable, was the home of distinctive destinations, and possessed amenities reflecting DeKalb’s unique character.

Based on the study, city staff and the task force identified two key objectives:

To significantly improve the downtown’s image.

The focus was on strengthening downtown’s core image, improving the existing streetscape environment, and improving circulation. Community leaders understood that downtown was the backdrop for the many experiences that shoppers, commuters, students, employees, merchants, property owners, and other visitors had on a daily basis.

To provide a variety of downtown destinations that served the community and attracted visitors.

One of these destinations was a new DeKalb Square that would be at the heart of the historic retail core.

Greenery enhances parking areas. Courtesy of Hitchcock Design Group

To fulfill the first objective, improvements involved a variety of traffic-calming techniques and premium streetscaping elements to enhance pedestrian comfort, reduce truck traffic, and improve the safety of drivers and cyclists along the main retail corridor.

Sprinkled With Streetscape Elements

Streets are the backbone of many downtowns as they provide access and convenient parking for vehicles and establish direct links for pedestrians. Streetscape elements provide a high level of comfort for pedestrians and shoppers, buffering them from traffic and unsightly views while providing places to sit and lighting for safety.

Guidelines were established for all streetscape elements to ensure a cohesive image. Some items incorporated into the guidelines included designation of roadway widths, well-marked pedestrian crosswalks for major intersections, ADA compliance, and pedestrian-scale ornamental lighting to improve roadway safety for both pedestrians and vehicles.

Additionally, the guidelines required that sidewalks provide comfortable and continuous access throughout downtown as well as maintain a uniform width from the back of the curb to the building.

Final measures incorporated into the guidelines called for the creation of gateways at key entrances to downtown and streetscapes to be uniform in appearance to blend with the area.

Trimming The Fat

A “road diet” was established for many of the streets that run through downtown DeKalb. Because of this approach, many of the minor downtown streets provided an opportunity for wider sidewalks and additional parking. These streets also received additional streetscaping to enhance the user experience.

Additional pedestrian-friendly enhancements, such as intersection speed tables and corner bump-outs, were incorporated with the specific strategy of improving pedestrian safety and comfort. These measures were particularly helpful in encouraging vehicles to travel at slower speeds while providing space for premium streetscape enhancements.

Mix In Greens

The anticipated outcome of the roadway improvements and premium streetscape enhancements was to create a greener, more environmentally sustainable downtown.

“Green” enhancements, such as trees, planters, parkways, and other landscaping features, were viewed as especially desirable. Small public parks and plazas were added on select, highly visible street corners.

These “green corners” include public seating, drinking fountains, play lots, water features, and other amenities that make downtown streets more inviting.

Another measure to increase green space involved landscaping the most visible and heavily utilized parking lots.

The overall revitalization plan was implemented in phases with the city celebrating the public dedication of the Frank Van Buer Plaza as the first part. The plaza—named in honor of the city’s late mayor—has created a downtown square and serves as a catalyst project that has offered the city a cost-effective solution, in that its 48-stall surface parking lot doubles as a public space for the weekly farmer’s markets as well as special events.

Due to its location in an urban environment, the plaza design incorporated permeable paving to handle stormwater run-off and reduce the need for additional infrastructure. The plaza welcomes a wide variety of events. Improvements to the streetscape environment in the downtown core have also resulted in increased traffic that in turn has led to new businesses being attracted to the area.

Timothy King is a Principal and landscape architect with Hitchcock Design Group’s Urban Studio, and can be reached at Hitchcock Design Group is a landscape architecture and planning firm with offices in Chicago and Naperville, Ill.