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Old Posted Apr 12, 2012, 3:05 AM
the urban politician the urban politician is offline
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Cool CHICAGOLAND | suburban downtown discussion

So far based on our discussion, here is a working list of Chicago's better suburban downtowns, which have a variable amount of shopping, dining, entertainment, and historic architecture. Some are more lively than others, some are more quaint than others, some are more ritzy and some are more working class. Please feel to suggest additions (or subtractions) from this list. Pics welcomed!

Glencoe
Highwood
WIlmette
Winnetka
Ravinia
Hubbard Woods
La Grange
Hinsdale
Lake Forest
Evanston
Oak Park
Naperville
Highland Park
Arlington Heights
Geneva
Woodstock
St Charles
Des Plaines
Park Ridge
Elmhurst
Aurora
Elgin

(Aurora and Elgin based on sheer size as opposed to retail activity)

Last edited by the urban politician; Apr 12, 2012 at 2:59 PM.
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Old Posted Apr 12, 2012, 3:31 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by the urban politician View Post
Rate your favorite suburban downtowns.

In descending order, here is what I've got:

1. Evanston
2. Oak Park
3. Naperville
4. Arlington Heights
5. Wilmette?


Am I missing a big one? There are still a lot of burbs I have not visited. How about Woodstock? How about some of those Fox river towns? I like Hinsdale but it's a bit small. I've passed Lake Forest's downtown on Metra and it looks nice, but I haven't really walked around. Glenview's downtown is decent.
Highland Park over Wilmette for sure. I'm not as familiar with some of the others so I won't place it on the list but I dont think it could beat evanston or oak park.
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Old Posted Apr 12, 2012, 3:34 AM
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You said "favorite", so...

1) Oak Park
2) Evanston
3) Winnetka/Hubbard Woods
4) Elmhurst
5) Geneva
6) Woodstock
7) St Charles
8) Highland Park
9) Park Ridge
10) Des Plaines

I'm not a huge fan of Naperville or Arlington Heights. Both places feel soulless and artificial to me, like the blend of businesses and amenities was carefully crafted by retail consultants or something.

Des Plaines is fun because it's so diverse and it has so much potential. It's not Flushing by any stretch, but there are numerous businesses run by Hispanic, Eastern European, and Asian immigrants. The city is density-friendly and they've allowed residential streets around downtown to get built up with big 4+1s. If they only allowed a few towers in the downtown, they could have a very bustling pedestrian district forming.
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Old Posted Apr 12, 2012, 3:46 AM
the urban politician the urban politician is offline
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^ Wow, Ardecila, thanks for the tip.

I have done the "Chicago" thing exhaustively (not that I'm ever going to get tired of the city anytime soon), but I've been interested in doing a suburban tour.

I haven't been to many of those suburbs, but I'll be sure to add them to my list of places worth visiting. Interestingly, what is it about Oak Park that makes you put it above Evanston?

One thing: Naperville gets a lot of hate around here. But to be honest, its downtown is really nice! What it may lack in character, I think is made up by the fact that at least they are making an effort to create a walkable retail/entertainment environment that isn't too far from the Metra station. And I LOVE the riverwalk.
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Old Posted Apr 12, 2012, 3:47 AM
Chicagoguy Chicagoguy is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by the urban politician View Post
Rate your favorite suburban downtowns.

In descending order, here is what I've got:

1. Evanston
2. Oak Park
3. Naperville
4. Arlington Heights
5. Wilmette?


Am I missing a big one? There are still a lot of burbs I have not visited. How about Woodstock? How about some of those Fox river towns? I like Hinsdale but it's a bit small. I've passed Lake Forest's downtown on Metra and it looks nice, but I haven't really walked around. Glenview's downtown is decent.
These would be my top 5:

1. Evanston
2. Highland Park
3. Wilmette
4. Oak Park
5. Lake Geneva (I know it is WI but it only takes 1.5 hours to get there)
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Old Posted Apr 12, 2012, 3:50 AM
the urban politician the urban politician is offline
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Anybody want to weigh in on Skokie (ie Touhy Ave)? Correct me if I'm wrong, but much of the walkable main st-style portions of Touhy are in Skokie right?
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Old Posted Apr 12, 2012, 4:32 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by the urban politician View Post
I haven't been to many of those suburbs, but I'll be sure to add them to my list of places worth visiting. Interestingly, what is it about Oak Park that makes you put it above Evanston?
Better mix of independent businesses.

Quote:
One thing: Naperville gets a lot of hate around here. But to be honest, its downtown is really nice! What it may lack in character, I think is made up by the fact that at least they are making an effort to create a walkable retail/entertainment environment that isn't too far from the Metra station. And I LOVE the riverwalk.
My dislike of Naperville's downtown has nothing to do with the sprawly nature of its residential neighborhoods. As I said before, it's all about the mixture of businesses. Part of the function of any reasonably urban place is to help grow businesses, giving opportunities to people with ideas and connecting them to a broad market. Naperville with their heavy reliance on chains will never be the home of anything new or innovative.

And, yea, it's close to the Metra - like every other suburban downtown. It's not like they're doing people a favor by developing it. I do think their parking system is very clever, though.
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Old Posted Apr 12, 2012, 4:36 AM
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Quote:
Rate your favorite suburban downtowns.

In descending order, here is what I've got:

1. Evanston
2. Oak Park
3. Naperville
4. Arlington Heights
5. Wilmette?
This is a pretty west and north biased list...for some Southwest style love, i'd add Hinsdale and Lagrange.
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Old Posted Apr 12, 2012, 5:19 AM
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Shit, I did forget LaGrange. That would probably sit in at #6 on my list.
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Old Posted Apr 12, 2012, 5:39 AM
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Ardecila I suppose Hubbard Woods edges out Glencoe and Lake Forest (each also next to a Metra station) because the latter are too small and too boutique-y, despite Hubbard Woods being kind of a strip and nowhere near as pretty as the latter? Or are you including downtown Winnetka with Hubbard Woods (they are quite separated)?
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Old Posted Apr 12, 2012, 6:32 AM
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I understand that Winnetka has two downtowns (Highland Park too, or three if you count Braeside). Hubbard Woods is somewhat small but it's well laid out and oriented around a beautiful town square at the train station. Green Bay Rd is lined with many unique and successful businesses and the street has great architectural character with mostly 1920s Tudor and Neoclassical.

From my perspective, Hubbard Woods is more beautiful than downtown Lake Forest, which is a weird eclectic architecture and purposefully auto-oriented, whatever that meant in the 20s. For the most part, though, the North Shore is pretty good urbanistically.

Glencoe's downtown is not even worth considering for the business mix, architecture, or pedestrianism. Lake Bluff and Ravinia do much more with less. It's often difficult on the North Shore to decide whether each downtown feels nice because of good design and planning, or because really wealthy people poured money into them to avoid embarassment.

I'm confident at least that Hubbard Woods is successful by design. It's a compelling place to be, which would remain true even if Ann Sacks and the Gap were replaced by pawn shops and bail bondsmen.
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Old Posted Apr 12, 2012, 7:28 AM
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Hubbard Woods however is largely awful north of Merrill Street. That leaves just 2 nice blocks, and they end with a gas station and have a couple other tooth gaps. The other thing is that those blocks straddle an arterial - Green Bay - and their sidewalks are not terribly wide with no planted strip between the sidewalk and the curb. Those might be good things or non-issues in the city, but in this small-scale suburban neighborhood context, it's feels suddenly congested without the usual density benefits of lots of choices. I can see how on Google Street View it looks very pretty but the actual experience is underwhelming - and the station park also is not as nice as it seems.

I guess there are different ways of looking at what should be desirable in a suburban downtown, because I understand the points you made too. On that basis Glencoe indeed doesn't come into the picture, but I think downtown Winnetka does deserve a nod.
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Old Posted Apr 12, 2012, 12:20 PM
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This is incredibly off subject, but I'll weigh in anyways. Evanston definitely wins with both El and Metra access and a fair mix of retail types as well as architectural styles. There is a good amount of residential density in the area as well with the highrises and such. This and the fact that many North Shore residents see it as an easily accessible downtown area (compared to the Loop and Michi Ave) means that walkable street life is pretty good as people park in one of the parking structures (I took the train a lot when I was in high school) and walk around for hours. Beyond that, you've got the added bonus of a dynamic university right next door.

As far as smaller towns go, I tend to prefer the 1920's aesthetic of Glencoe, Hubbard Woods (before you get to the strip mall to the north - the park is nice as well), Winnetka, Wilmette is okay, Lake Forest. Even Oak Park imo suffers from the same problem as these places - the gravity / size of locations is not strong enough to lure people out of their cars and let them walk around.
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Old Posted Apr 12, 2012, 12:24 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by the urban politician View Post
^ Wow, Ardecila, thanks for the tip.

I have done the "Chicago" thing exhaustively (not that I'm ever going to get tired of the city anytime soon), but I've been interested in doing a suburban tour.

I haven't been to many of those suburbs, but I'll be sure to add them to my list of places worth visiting. Interestingly, what is it about Oak Park that makes you put it above Evanston?

One thing: Naperville gets a lot of hate around here. But to be honest, its downtown is really nice! What it may lack in character, I think is made up by the fact that at least they are making an effort to create a walkable retail/entertainment environment that isn't too far from the Metra station. And I LOVE the riverwalk.
I love downtown Naperville. It's pretty hard for anyone to hate on it unless they are referring to the commercial-highway areas outside the core. But the central section of Naperville is great. Walkable, lots of shops and restaurants, and decent older buildings.

I agree that all these posts (including mine) should be merged into a suburban Chicago thread. I also have lots of pictures of Oak Park, Naperville, Winnetka, Willmette, Evanston, and Highland Park.
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Old Posted Apr 12, 2012, 2:10 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Swicago Swi Sox View Post
This is a pretty west and north biased list...for some Southwest style love, i'd add Hinsdale and Lagrange.
I was waiting for someone to mention LaGrange.

My top 6, in no particular order would be Oak Park, Evanston, LaGrange, Elmhurst, Highland Park, Naperville.


Oak Park and Evanston are obvious... Elmhurst, LaGrange and HP have a great scale to them, with a nice mixture of uses all within a walkable distance from main thoroughfares and Metra to get my vote. And even while I despise Naperville, they are trying really really hard to make their downtown as dense and vibrant as possible. I was recently there on a Saturday night and the streets were packed.
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Old Posted Apr 12, 2012, 2:29 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by ardecila View Post
I understand that Winnetka has two downtowns (Highland Park too, or three if you count Braeside). Hubbard Woods is somewhat small but it's well laid out and oriented around a beautiful town square at the train station. Green Bay Rd is lined with many unique and successful businesses and the street has great architectural character with mostly 1920s Tudor and Neoclassical.

From my perspective, Hubbard Woods is more beautiful than downtown Lake Forest, which is a weird eclectic architecture and purposefully auto-oriented, whatever that meant in the 20s. For the most part, though, the North Shore is pretty good urbanistically.

Glencoe's downtown is not even worth considering for the business mix, architecture, or pedestrianism. Lake Bluff and Ravinia do much more with less.
Hubbard Woods is tiny. You could isolate a comparable strip from any larger North Shore downtown. I certainly wouldn't categorize it differently than Glencoe or Winnetka. In fact, I'd rank Highwood above Hubbard Woods; it has a working class charm that's unique to the area and more vibrancy after 5pm than most North Shore locales. (Lots of bars and restaurants. The Italian heritage is strong, though not as much as it used to be during Highwood's heyday when Fort Sheridan was more active.)

Braeside is not a downtown, just a Metra stop with a couple businesses across the street. There's a weird little area just to the west of Route 41/Skokie Highway at Deerfield Road that has more claim to title of Highland Park's "third downtown" than Braeside.

If we're just talking the North Shore, I'd say downtown Highland Park easily outranks all the others after Evanston. There are some questionable planning choices and architecture styles, to be sure, but some really great ones, as well: underground parking, higher density (and mixed income) housing (something you won't find much of in the rest of the North Shore: limousine liberalism and whatnot), mixed use. In general, the city has taken more risks, and the overall result is an interesting mix—most often nice, sometimes endearingly quirky. When you consider the institutions housed there (the high school, a middle school, and an elementary school; the city hall; the library; the historical society; an art center—"The Art Center") and some of the businesses (Saks, Anthropologie, E Street, Paper Source, boutiques, spas, bakeries, chocolate shops, an art house movie theater, a second-run theater, Sunset Foods) and restaurants (Once Upon a Bagel, Michael's, Stash's, Love's frozen yogurt, Walker Bros.), IMO, it's hard to find anything else in the area that comes close.

Quote:
Originally Posted by ardecila View Post
It's often difficult on the North Shore to decide whether each downtown feels nice because of good design and planning, or because really wealthy people poured money into them to avoid embarassment.
Really? There are plenty of wealthy suburbs with shit downtowns. Deerfield had an opportunity not too long ago to make their downtown more inviting but totally blew it with the arrangement of the massive amount of surface parking they installed.

ETA--sorry, TUP, missed your post.
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Old Posted Apr 12, 2012, 2:34 PM
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Let me start this by saying that I have very little expeience with Chicago suburbs.

What do you mean by "favorite" - do you mean the best place to visit or the best place to live?

While I agree that the retail mix is rather bland at Arlington Heights, and the architecture of the recent buildings varies from eye gougingly bland to ungainly pastiche, it seems to me to be a very livable town. The presence of a major grocery store right across the street from the Metra station helps a lot. I have relatives who live in a bungalow a couple blocks from there and it seems pretty nice to me.
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Old Posted Apr 12, 2012, 2:43 PM
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Here's some pics I have handy of Naperville





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Old Posted Apr 12, 2012, 2:44 PM
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Originally Posted by the urban politician View Post
I've never been to Riverside, but it was supposedly designed by Olmstead, anyone want to comment on it? Also, how about the south burbs? I've never been to downtown Joliet, but it's a large enough town that it must have a substantial one.
Riverside is definitely worth a trip for sheer beauty alone, but it doesn't really have a business district. There's a barber shop and a florist, I think. Definitely a bedroom community, albeit a transit-oriented one.

I don't really know a ton about downtown Joliet either, but it doesn't have the best reputation. Neither do the other industrial satellites of Aurora and Elgin, although Aurora is getting better.
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Old Posted Apr 12, 2012, 2:52 PM
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for their architecture alone, i've got to give props to downtown aurora and elgin. they're not the liveliest of places, but they have bigger bones than most suburban downtowns because they weren't built as burbs.

my pics:

elgin





















aurora







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