'It has so much potential': Des Plaines officials again looking at revamping Metropolitan Square
Proposals to energize the Metropolitan Square complex in downtown Des Plaines are being revisited by city officials, years after being shelved.
A planning and architectural firm called the Lakota Group came up with improvement plans for the commercial and residential development in 2015, but none of its recommendations were implemented. Since then, some vacant storefronts have remained empty, and several businesses have moved out.
The plans are being dusted off now at the request of Mayor Andrew Goczkowski. He wants to make the plaza at the center of Metropolitan Square a bigger draw for the community, a place people will visit to eat and spend recreational time.
"It has so much potential," said Goczkowski, who put the issue on the agenda for Tuesday night's city council meeting. "But it's clearly not reaching that potential."
Metropolitan Square opened in 2006. While the commercial and condominium buildings there are privately owned, the plaza, its streets and a parking garage are public property.
Retail tenants include a Giordano's restaurant, a Potbelly Sandwich Shop, a Shop & Save Market and the relatively new At 7 Bar & Grill. Professional offices include Metro Square Dental and Allstate. In all, the complex has about 121,000 square feet of commercial space.
The plaza is a short walk north of Miner Street and the downtown core. The newly renovated Des Plaines Theatre is on Miner, along with city hall, blocks of businesses and a Metra train station.
But despite its proximity to that action, Metropolitan Square always has had trouble attracting people.
Some restaurant spaces have turned over multiple times. Most prominently, a Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurant became a Tap House Grill, which in turn became At 7.
Other storefronts have stood vacant for lengthy periods. At least one never has had tenants.
Nine out of 22 storefronts currently are vacant.
Sixth Ward Alderman Malcolm Chester said he's heard high leasing rates have driven some tenants away and kept some entrepreneurs from moving in.
Standing offers of $100,000 municipal grants to help fund renovations for new businesses in the downtown area aren't alluring enough to fill the complex, Chester noted.
"We have to deal with it," he said.
The city hired the Lakota Group in 2015 to develop ways to draw people to the plaza.
The firm made many suggestions, including changing traffic patterns, adding play features for children, building entertainment stages and installing decorative lights.
If all were implemented, the projects could've cost more than $5 million at the time.
But nothing came of the plans.
Chester recalled members were skeptical the expensive plans would result in dividends for the city.
"We just weren't sure it was the right way to go," he said.
'Time to pounce'
The recent reopening of the nearby Des Plaines Theatre after a multimillion-dollar renovation by the city could be the spark the council needs to make changes at the plaza.
"This might be the time to pounce," Goczkowski said.
Goczkowski envisions a public gathering place "where people could spend time." He talked about building a splash pad for kids and creating a green space where people can enjoy movies.
Goczkowski especially likes the idea of making the plaza a pedestrian-only space. That could be accomplished by eliminating roads and parking spots within the development.
The four-story parking garage is big enough to meet the complex's needs, Goczkowski said.
Chester agrees that the theater's reopening makes the Metropolitan Square Plaza concepts more attractive. But as before, for him, it'll come down to the numbers.
That's especially true, Chester said, because the city's share of revenue from Rivers Casino -- millions earmarked each year for infrastructure improvements, debt reduction and other uses -- likely will drop once new casinos open in Waukegan, Chicago and the South suburbs in two or three years.
"You have to be realistic," Chester said.
The public portion of Tuesday's meeting is set to begin at 7 p.m. at city hall, 1420 Miner St. It will be livestreamed at desplaines.org.
Metropolitan Square PlazaDes Plaines officials are revisiting plans to energize Metropolitan Square and its plaza. Here's a look at the complex:Location: Downtown Des Plaines, at Metropolitan Way at Market Street
Size: About 9 acres
Year opened: 2006
Commercial space: 121,000 square feet
Current commercial occupancies: 13
Tenants include: Giordano's, Shop & Save Market, At 7 Bar & Grill, Potbelly Sandwich Shop, Lee Nails, ClearVision Optometrist
Current commercial vacancies: 9
Source: Des Plaines city hall