Park Forest: the new community model - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Park Forest: the new community model

Campaign for Sensible Growth/Urban Land Institute-Chicago 2003 Technical Assistance Panel spawns success in south suburban Park Forest, Ill.

South suburban Park Forest has been a model community from its inception. A town built in the late 1940s as one of the nation’s first-large scale planned unit developments, Park Forest ’s success gave rise to a format that shaped thousands of communities across the country for decades. It had one of the first regional shopping malls, the village’s main economic engine for years, which only fell on hard times when shoppers took their pocketbooks to newer indoor malls in the 1990s. The village recognized the futility of a Park Forest Mall with no major anchors and converted its failed mall to a town center—DownTown Park Forest—cutting streets through parking lots, taking down outmoded buildings and reinventing itself. Now, once again, the village is leading the way, modernizing suburban homeownership opportunities, breathing new life into the downtown and attracting new investment, proving that Park Forest is building its legacy and creating a great place to call home.

The groundwork for this transformation was laid in 2003, when village leaders invited the Urban Land Institute-Chicago and Campaign for Sensible Growth to convene a Technical Assistance Panel (TAP) to assist with increasing the viability of the newly created DownTown. The industry experts who comprised the panel offered several workable strategies as reported in Building on the Legacy: Creating a New DownTown. In the few short years since the TAP took place, many of the recommendations have been implemented, creating a new legacy in historic Park Forest .

TAP Recommendation: Lengthen village board terms of office from three years to four.

Aware of the development community’s need for continuity and predictability, panelists expressed concern that Park Forest’s term lengths and election cycle potentially created turnover every year and discouraged investment. By changing its statute for term of office (supported by 54 percent in March 2004), Park Forest now has a cycle where the mayor and board are all elected to serve four-year terms. The development community benefits from improved stability and continuity of goals, and political support; while locals are better served by elected officials who are thoroughly invested in the community’s projects and develop goals by consensus. This change facilitated many of the next steps taken by the village in order to ensure success of its Legacy Square subdivision. With even its name plucked from the TAP report, Legacy Square will bring “ new homes, new families and new shoppers to the DownTown Park Forest area.”


These nearly sold-out single family homes and live/work units — combining 500 sq. ft. of work space on the first floor, with two-bedroom living space on the second floor — provide options for both home, office, small retail use or an artist studio or gallery; and indicate the demand for new housing choices within Park Forest. As importantly, they bring new residents who can sustain the shopping and entertainment district.

TAP Recommendation: Remove the “sea” of parking that has had a blighting effect on DownTown and assemble larger parcel to attract major developer.

Bigelow Homes’ redevelopment agreement for the former Victoria Place included an option to use the south mall parking lot area and the old Marshall Fields building for a Phase II plan for Legacy Square. The village is currently reviewing concept plans that will transform the parking lots and department store site into single-family homes, live/work units or condos, with the timeline for Phase II construction beginning as early as summer 2007. The increase in new homes in DownTown Park Forest will provide the necessary “rooftops” to allow the retail market along Main Street to flourish.

In addition, the village seeks to bring development to another vacant property on the north side of the former mall, off Main Street . Support for a mixed-use development of this kind, with retail at street level and two-to-three-story residences above, was primed by the TAP process, through recommendations to increase residential density and provide for commercial-residential flexibility.

TAP Recommendation: Reduce the amount of retail space, cluster tenants with complementary uses and improve signage along retail corridor.

Recognizing that Park Forest is no longer a regional shopping destination, with its downtown functioning more as a specialty convenience center, panelists advised village officials to reduce the available retail space by more than a third. Bigelow Homes’ Phase II plan for Legacy Square eliminates over 110,000 square feet of vacant retail space from the village’s current inventory with its use of the former Marshall Fields building. Clustering “like uses” along Main Street creates a more vibrant corridor, and current business success stories — multiple doctors’ offices, hair salons, art galleries, shops, restaurants and more — prove this method makes the most of a diverse market. Upstairs office space also houses service provider companies and other merchants, businesses that never would have made use of the former large anchor mall space.

Following the TAP, the village moved to install two major gateway signs for the east and west entry-ways to define the DownTown area. The village also is incorporating newly designed way-finding signs along arterials that traverse Park Forest to create awareness of the amenities located within the downtown area, including the theater, art galleries, and library. They’ve also developed an annual marketing budget including line items for informational materials and public relations, trips to trade shows, paid advertising, and more, in order to better promote the DownTown area and village as a whole.

With these and other winning tactics, Park Forest has implemented sound market strategies, showcasing how to move forward, decision by decision, revitalizing blighted areas and building a vibrant downtown. Already through the implementation of the 2003 TAP recommendations, the village is well on their way to creating a new legacy: the new model for a livable community.

Congratulations Park Forest !

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