Compared to the rest of Wheaton’s vibrant downtown, the southern section of the core business district has been left largely untouched by developers.
But a major apartment project promises to breathe new life into a stagnant area known for a smattering of older office and commercial buildings.
Plans for the seven-story residential complex have received preliminary approval from the city council, setting the stage for the first large-scale housing development to rise up downtown in about a decade. A final vote is expected on Aug. 1.
The downtown has benefitted in recent years from a slew of aesthetic improvements and a bustling outdoor dining scene on Hale Street. The city has spent $35 million on new downtown infrastructure, streetscape and public gathering spaces. Officials see the apartment building as another catalyst for a resurgent downtown.
“We’ve captured lightning in a bottle,” city council member Michael Barbier said.
The project would sustain restaurants and shops by adding foot traffic, officials say. Deerfield-based Banner Real Estate intends to put 334 units within a two-walk block to the Metra train station.
“This project is a continuation of that process of bringing people to the downtown,” Mayor Phil Suess said. “It’s creating housing. It’s giving us flooding remediation that we don’t have. It’s enhancing our streetscapes, so this is a positive for our community.”
The developer initially planned to knock down four buildings to make way for the complex. Banner Real Estate now has deals to acquire adjacent corner properties, allowing the development to take over the full city block bounded by Liberty Drive to the north, Hale Street to the east, Willow Avenue to the south and Wheaton Avenue to the west.
“The fact that they were able to obtain this block basically took away a very significant objection,” said Suess, noting the development “does not touch one residential home.”
Still, some nearby residents object to the building’s height.
“The density is too much. It’s too big,” said Mike Andrews, who lives on south Hale Street. “It’s not appropriate for that block in the city of Wheaton.”
The block is now home to the Egg Harbor Cafe restaurant, a four-story brick office building formerly occupied by Wheaton Bank & Trust, the Perfect Thing consignment store, and a house also used as offices on Willow Avenue. The bank moved out of the office building roughly eight years ago.
In their place, the apartment complex would cover nearly 2.6 acres of downtown land, taking the shape of a Roman numeral two. Egg Harbor would move into a 4,500-square-foot, first-floor space at the northeast corner of the new building.
“The marketplace isn’t building new retail. It’s not building new office. Some of the things that are kind of aspirational just aren’t available in the marketplace,” Suess said. “What’s being built is housing, and I think housing is a public benefit.”
Council members on Monday night directed the city attorney to draw up an ordinance granting a request for zoning changes to allow the construction of the apartment complex. Several council members said they wanted officials to work with St. Michael Catholic Parish, further west along Willow Avenue, to help address traffic flow and improve their student drop-off and pickup operations. Council member Lynn Robbins was the lone dissenting vote.
“Wheaton as we all know has charm, has a wonderful charm in our downtown. We heard lots of conversation about safety, the increase of density, and there were some concessions,” Robbins said. “However, I want to take people back to 2017 when I ran for city council the first time, and that was to be the voice of the people. I cannot support this as it stands today.”
The 79-foot-tall building would contain five stories of units on top of a two-story concrete podium that would hold a leasing office and a private indoor parking garage. The city zoning code allows a maximum height of four stories or 50 feet, whichever is greater, in the area. But city planners note there are several newer downtown buildings of comparable height. The Wheaton 121 building stands 70 feet high.
The city provided economic incentives for that apartment complex and other residential construction downtown over the last 20 some years. The proposed development, however, doesn’t require tax increment financing funds.
“The fact that somebody wants to build a complex like this in Wheaton, that they want to build a complex like this without public or TIF assistance, that’s a good thing,” Suess said.
Units would range from studio apartments to townhouse units with street access.