Elgin’s Downtown is at a Crossroads: Walkable or Car-Centric

These are plans for the North Grove Redevelopment area, a 38-acre redevelopment in Elgin.

These are plans for the North Grove Redevelopment area, a 38-acre redevelopment in Elgin.

Eric D. Rangel and Evan Phan

In the frigid North Dakota air, stands the “Gateway to the West.” Fargo, North Dakota is one of the Midwest’s fastest growing cities. A boom in oil production and a burgeoning tech sector has seen the city’s metro population grow by 20,724 since 2010. The city’s downtown has seen property values rise from $197 million dollars in 2001 to $608 million in 2022. However, at the base of Fargo’s growth is a city wide initiative to revolutionize their downtown into a vibrant core. To understand why Fargo has been growing so fast and how this connects to Elgin, we first have to understand how the automobile has wrecked our cities.

A century ago, American cities were designed and scaled for the people. In the 1950s that all changed with the Interstate Highway Act of 1950. Cars became the priority and American downtowns became carved out for surface parking lots and single-family homes. It was at this time that our cities lost density and therefore lost economic efficiency. Because the suburban sprawl of cities led to the maintenance of more land and therefore higher costs for cities. This pedestrian-hostile environment led to so many adverse effects from physical well-being, mental well-being, and economic well-being. And with a decrepit downtown and a city headed for bankruptcy, Fargo knew something had to change. The city noticed that the urban density of the downtown brought in the most revenue for the city. Consequently, they decided to revolutionize their downtown with a focus on walkability, mixed-use development, and new infill. In the 20 years since, their success has been nothing short of extraordinary. The vibrant core, lively streets, and inviting public spaces have been seen by other cities across the nation who are now following in Fargo’s footsteps. 

Now, Elgin has the chance to follow in the path of Fargo. At the beginning of this year, the city of Elgin and its consultants partners started creating a plan for the North Grove Redevelopment Area. The 38-acre redevelopment site contains three massive plots of land in the heart of Elgin, with two that are right on the Fox River and on the popular Fox River Trail. Elgin is at a pivotal crossroads; they can choose to go with single-family housing or create a mixed-use district on the river that could add immense housing to the area and a vibrant core to “The City in the Suburbs.” 

This historical plan is not just being decided by the city, but they are actually taking feedback from citizens in the community. Thus, we would like to give what we believe to be the most ideal plan for the area. The plan should have a focus on walkability and the growth of Elgin’s downtown. We believe a walkable, mixed-use development is what this area needs. It should be a welcoming gateway from the Fox River and the Fox River trail. A vibrant welcoming district to the city is one with riverfront restaurants, beer gardens, and tree-lined pedestrian/bike friendly streets. But the most important aspects of this redevelopment are small, walkable blocks that make it inviting for pedestrians to walk around and explore downtown Elgin. 

A major question in this redevelopment is what type of housing should be in the area. We believe urban density is the best and so apartments or condominiums would be the most ideal and would help fight the unprecedented housing shortage being faced in Illinois. On the ground level, the “anchor” should consist of a grocery store and commercial zoning like clothing stores or restaurants. A grocery store in downtown Elgin would be beneficial for those without a car or who can’t drive and have to rely on walking or public transportation. Lastly, we believe that this area should have a focus on providing a great riverfront. A vibrant riverwalk with recreational spaces for playing will bring a much needed community gathering place. 

The North Grove Redevelopment Area Plan is a once in a lifetime opportunity to transform this city. As the planning process gets underway, we believe Elgin should follow the path Fargo is taking and build a walkable district that serves as a recreation, economic, and residential hub that truly shows why Elgin is the City in the Suburbs.