By Melinda Czifrak
Current commercial areas in the Depot District; Photo courtesy of the Berwyn Development Corporation
In the dreams of Berwyn’s planners, crowds fill the busy streets of the Depot District, with shoppers and retailers mingling inside quaint shops as others enjoy a meal in one of the area’s many restaurants. Outside, cars drive by, the final touch to an otherwise perfect picture of retail bliss.
The Depot District’s reality, however, looks a little bit different.
In recent years, the city of Berwyn has attempted to bolster its retail offerings and develop a destination dinning corridor.
According to the Berwyn Development Corporation, the city’s traditional downtown, known to locals as the Depot District, contains a variety of “higher density mixed use and institutional buildings.” The District is built around the Berwyn Metra Station and has had varying degrees of success in creating a pedestrian-friendly environment through recent streetscape improvements and architectural design. However, commercial and residential occupancies are relatively low in this area, something that city officials are looking to change.
This is where the Depot District redevelopment plan comes in.
Berwyn Mayor Robert J. Lovero called the project a “massive overhaul.”
“The Depot District is quiet,” Lovero said. “Despite the area’s location, which makes it visible from the trains passing by, the lack of vehicular traffic has been keeping businesses from relocating there.”
Funded by the state of Illinois, the “ambitious” project is part of an effort to make the city more known to Illinois-residents outside of Berwyn.
According to the BDC’s 2012 Comprehensive Plan, the main goals are to convert existing “vacant and underutilized commercial properties into high-quality developments that cater to the needs of residents and visitors.”
The new Depot District will include restaurants and a shopping center, turning the area pedestrian- and business-friendly, with the city seeking to attract a greater diversity of mid- and large-size retailers.
The presence of Metra stations and a new high-rise mixed use development right at the center of the Depot District offers “great opportunity to transform the commercial district into a mixed-use district with a retail core around the Berwyn Metra Station and MacNeal Hospital,” documents made public by the BDC conclude.
“There has been talk about change for a while,” Susan Williams, a Depot District resident, said. “I’ve been living here for over 20 years and it’s a quiet area. Nothing ever happens in the Depot District, so it’s going to be interesting to follow the progress of this project.”
Williams, a mother of two, has been going to the same grocery store for years and believes that the area lacks “diversity when it comes to shopping choices.”
“It would be nice having more retail options around, especially for the younger generation,” she said. “When I first moved to Berwyn, the area was populated by single families. Today, more and more college graduates relocate here. I believe the city is trying to cater to that generation’s needs, as well as to make the Depot District more well-known and accessible.”
Still, familiarity and tradition are hard to let go of.
“The Depot District has always been about community,” Maria Ramirez, a Depot District native, said. “I was born and raised on these streets, and we never lacked traffic or small businesses.”
Ramirez believes that the Depot District should remain a residential area. MacNeal Hospital generates enough traffic as it is.
At present, the Depot District redevelopment plan is the city’s most ambitious and time-consuming project. Construction is scheduled to begin sometime next year, the city of Berwyn hoping for a 2018 completion date.