Town square modeled on Dutch design revives dying downtown

The Fox River town of Batavia, Ill., about 40 miles west of Chicago, may be the last place you’d expect to find a radical experiment in resuscitating a dying downtown. And yet, by American standards, a block-and-a-half stretch of Batavia’s River Street is radical indeed.

This stretch, which runs parallel to the river, has no curbs, no traffic stripes and no crosswalks. Instead, a continuous carpet of red and brown bricks unfurls from buildings on one side of the street to the other. Pedestrians and cyclists share the street with slow-moving cars. The people on foot can cross anywhere they want. On Saturday mornings, when the cars are kicked out entirely, tents appear, and the street is transformed into a vibrant farmers market.

The Dutch call this kind of communal street a woonerf (pronounced VONE-erf), which translates roughly to “living street.” Such streets, also known as shared streets or complete streets, have been commonplace in Europe for decades. Now they’re popping up around the U.S., challenging the order in which the car is king.

The one in Batavia, touted by its designers as the first woonerf in the Midwest, is a handsome success that has boosted pedestrian traffic and business fortunes. The local politicians who have attacked it as wild overspending know the price of everything and the value of nothing. The project just won an award from the Illinois chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

As shaped by the Chicago firm Altamanu and its chief designer, Josephine Bellalta, the woonerf is a small but significant antidote to the car-oriented row of strip malls and franchise outlets that has sprung up on Randall Road a couple of miles to the west. Randall Road is the same tax-generating, generic suburbia you find everywhere. River Street has a distinctive sense of place.

There are muscular old buildings made of locally quarried limestone. Several restaurants line the street. A nearby pedestrian bridge across the Fox River lures cyclists zipping along a riverfront bike trail. The woonerf, which cost about $2.8 million and included underground pipes and other infrastructure upgrades, has nicely tied these things together since its completion last year.

The big idea is to make a shared outdoor place that invites people to pause and partake, not just pass through. In that spirit, custom-designed wood benches offer a place to sit. More seating is built into hardy granite planters, which hold trees and grasses. There’s ample space for restaurants to put out cafe seating. Ornamental fencing designed by local artists adds a pleasing decorative touch. You can ditch your car in a city-owned parking deck along the woonerf. As you enter the street, a traffic sign spells out the rules: Pedestrians, bicyclists and vehicles share the road.

The concept seems to be working, though the woonerf wasn’t exactly jumping with people when I visited on a recent weekday afternoon. Fears that the novel arrangement would cause traffic accidents have proved unfounded, according to Batavia police spokesman Kevin Bretz. And the street is fulfilling its promise as a civic space. It provided a perfect, car-free spot for people to gather and celebrate when the Batavia High School Bulldogs won the Class 6A state football title last year.

Restaurants like the just-opened Gaetano’s have set up shop along the woonerf, attracted by the exposure they get from the well-attended farmers markets. Existing businesses, like the Instrument Exchange music store, receive additional foot traffic as people stroll after dining out. “I love it,” Tom Stading, the store’s owner, said of the woonerf.

The new streetscape isn’t just helping business. It’s changing the way people like Gaetano Di Benedetto, Gaetano’s co-owner, think about doing business. The restaurateur said he planned to set out a table on market days for cooking demonstrations - a prospect that pleased Altamanu principal John MacManus.

It’s a “living street,” MacManus said of the woonerf. “You take your business outside. It’s not just behind the glass.”

Invariably, there have been complaints about the removal of parking spaces that allowed customers to drive right up to stores and restaurants. I’m sympathetic, considering how our brutal winters can make walking even a few extra steps a chore. But the walks necessitated by the woonerf are not much longer than those you take from the parking lot to a store in a typical suburban mall.

The chief target for opponents of the concept is the gateway leading into the woonerf from heavily trafficked Wilson Street; it’s been assailed for its cost (about $120,000) and its design, a metal halo held up by wood columns and beams, bolts and metal straps. Yet the gateway effectively announces the presence of the woonerf to motorists, creates a doorway into the urban room and relates well to the rough-hewn timber construction of buildings like Batavia’s City Hall.

Its major fault is that it’s too grand for the small scale of the current woonerf. But what looks wasteful today might be farsighted tomorrow.

Batavia’s mayor, Jeffery Schielke, would like to see the shared street extended if and when an old windmill factory and other buildings along Batavia’s riverfront are redeveloped. However that turns out, Schielke and the two Batavia aldermen who championed this project, deserve praise for a gutsy effort that is revitalizing their town center and could be a model for other suburbs.