Village strives for stronger sense of community
Vernon Hills, Ill., is an emerging “edge” city 30 miles north of Chicago. Although the village is the largest non-home rule municipality in the state without a property tax, it boasts an AA bond rating as a result of prudent public service budgeting and land use decisions made within a larger economic development strategy.
The municipality’s strategy has brought rapid growth, creating a relatively young community that is surrounded by more established towns. To compete more effectively in the regional market and ensure the village remains an attractive place to live and work, Vernon Hills is striving to forge a stronger sense of community.
To that end, the village adopted a plan in 1994 that established a vision statement and a series of objectives, all aimed at promoting a greater sense of community. The objectives included building community facilities, organizing community activities and reforging the newly built environment with community-oriented planning.
This attempt to reconsider the building blocks of community, based on residents’ input, was the heart of the Vernon Hills Traditional Neighborhood Design Charrette. Though other planning charrettes have been conducted, Vernon Hills’ effort was unique in that it was initiated by a local government and its citizens.
At a public meeting in May 1995, the village’s board and planning commission embarked upon the charrette with a focus on the Ranney Property Planning Area. This area was a collection of parcels, located across from a commuter rail station to be opened in 1996, that represented one of the last remaining large tracts of land in the village. Some of the goals outlined in the meeting included:
* exploring “neo-traditional” planning opportunities;
* opening up the process to the entire community and designing the site plan in accordance with the input that residents provided;
* facilitating collaboration among all stakeholders; and
* publicizing the process so that other communities could benefit.
The charrette began with a neighborhood planning survey and the notion that each resident could be a village planner. A video showing 30 images of a wide range of existing developments in the region was produced in-house, and residents viewed the video on local cable TV, recording preferences on a sliding scale. In all, 14 percent of the village’s residents responded to the survey.
Next, a “Traditional Neighborhood Tour” enabled charrette participants to experience the different environments depicted in the survey. Working with the local mass transit agency, the village secured a bus and participants spent a Saturday morning visiting traditional neighborhoods built before Vernon Hills was incorporated in 1958.
Most post-war suburban developments do not resemble the evocative, small town neighborhoods that survey respondents said they preferred. Thus, it was imperative that all charrette stakeholders actually visit older neighborhoods, to experience the sense of place and take note of nuances like lot size and setbacks.
The third step in the design process was a series of workshops involving residents, village staff and elected officials, planning-area property owners, staff and elected officials from other public organizations serving the property and planners/architects retained by the developer. The intensive workshops continued for an entire week, during the day and evening, and included a series of visioning exercises and conceptual site studies.
This approach and the openness that was encouraged was a marked contrast to the customary development review process, in which parochial interests and more closed processes have so often limited the outcome to an assuredly typical product.
The charrette concluded in July 1996 with the approval of a conceptual design for the planning area. With a budget of less than $150 for printing and food, the Vernon Hills charrette accomplished each of the established process and site specific goals. The traditional neighborhood project is now under construction.
The charrette has been so widely reported that the village has delivered several presentations in the last year on this unique approach to economic development. Vernon Hills has also drafted a model ordinance based on the project, working with the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission, the regional planning commission for the Chicago metropolitan area.
The Traditional Neighborhood Design Charrette conducted by Vernon Hills now stands as an example for other communities attempting to better address environmental, aesthetic and social issues in their on-going economic development programs.