Jul 5, 2016

Façade Improvement Programs


Façade Improvement Programs:
Getting the Private Sector Involved in Downtown Revitalization

Authors: Craig Hullinger AICP and Diane Gormely-Barnes AICP

A Facade Improvement Program can be a cost effective method of encouraging private sector reinvestment in older commercial areas. A program will usually provide partial funding for appropriate facade improvements that both enhance the appearance of the building and contribute to the overall character of an historic commercial area or central business district (CBD), most often as part of a larger improvement program.

The Village of Tinley Park, Illinois undertook a transit-oriented development (TOD) plan in 1998 that was sponsored by the Regional Transportation Authority of Northeastern Illinois (RTA). The RTA’s Regional Transportation Assistance Program (RTAP) provided matching funds for the development of the plan. The TOD plan was essentially a downtown improvement plan, focusing on enhancements to the train station area within the historic commercial core of the community. The community planning process, led by the Chicago-based planning firm of Camiros, Ltd., resulted in recommendations to enhance the appearance and viability of the “Old Town” area along Oak Park Avenue, adjacent to the Metra station.

Train stations were the focus of many communities when rail transport was king. The CBD of Tinley Park developed around the train station, a stop on the famous Rock Island Line. Most businesses and homes were within easy walking distance of the train station. As the town grew and the auto became dominant, wider modern roads diverted traffic away from the historic commercial buildings adjacent to the train tracks. The station area declined in importance and became a minor center relative to the large commercial centers developed at the intersections of major roads elsewhere in Tinley Park. The Village became concerned about the deterioration of “Old Town” and also recognized that some of the buildings no longer exhibited a character appropriate for an historic area, due to modern era renovations.

The TOD plan included numerous proposed improvements to Metra facilities, and also many landscaping, streetscaping and marketing enhancements. The Village and Metra have moved aggressively to implement the public sector initiatives of the plan, and a number of improvements have been made or are underway. These include the removal of an unsightly water tower near the tracks, parking lot and sidewalk upgrades, installation of a plaza near the station to serve as a community gathering space and CBD focal point, and the ongoing construction of a new Metra station. A new mixed-use building containing retail space and condominiums is also under construction on a key site in the area.

A very important and effective part of the plan was the development of Façade Improvement Guidelines, and the preparation of several specific facade improvement concepts for high visibility buildings in the area. The Guidelines address three specific development types found in the station area: traditional commercial facades built up to the sidewalk, auto-oriented buildings set back from the street, and older residences that have been converted to business use. Each façade improvement concept included a detailed illustration of the potential future appearance of the façade, juxtaposed with a photograph of the existing condition of the building. The sketches provided an improvement recommendation that each building owner could pursue with an architect or directly with a general contractor, depending upon the scope of the proposed façade changes.

The Village of Tinley Park then developed and marketed a Façade Improvement Program for buildings in the CBD, beginning with building owners for whom the Village had proactively funded improvement concepts. Under the Program, the building owner hires an architect acceptable to the Village to design (or in these cases refine) a façade concept and estimate the cost of the improvements. Drawings are then submitted to the Village. If approved, the Village reimburses 
the building owner for up to 50% of the cost of the façade improvements.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Village staff used the facade improvement concepts in meetings with property owners, the business community, and developers. The sketches were very effective in developing interest in building improvements by the private sector. Several buildings in the immediate area of the train station have been attractively renovated and house thriving restaurants that are highly visible to passing Metra commuters, providing outdoor dining areas and substantial new downtown activity, jobs, and sales tax revenue.

A Facade Improvement Program is a low cost and effective way to attract quality investment to a community. The facade improvement concepts were a very important outgrowth of the TOD plan. They encouraged the active involvement of the private sector in area improvements. The improvements generated by the TOD plan and Facade Improvement Program jump-started a successful effort toward community revitalization.

The authors:

Craig Hullinger, AICP is a city planning consultant. He can be reached at: craighullinger@gmail.com


Diane Gormely-Barnes, AICP, AIA, LEED AP is currently a Principal Planner with HNTB Corporation in Chicago, Illinois. She was formerly a Senior Associate at Camiros, Ltd. She can be reached at dcbarnes@hntb.com.