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St. Charles re-evaluates downtown overlay district

Published: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 6:11 a.m. CDT

ST. CHARLES – Restrictions might be loosened on the types of businesses allowed in first-floor storefronts downtown.

The St. Charles Planning and Development Committee on Monday discussed staff’s proposal to modify the Downtown Overlay Zoning District established in 2006.

The zoning regulation limits first-floor and street-level spaces within the district – roughly Fourth Street to Third Avenue and State to Indiana – to businesses that generate pedestrian traffic, such as theaters, hotels, salons, restaurants and retailers. The intent was to preserve economic vitality and the pedestrian character of downtown’s shopping core. So far, four of eight exemption requests have been granted.

Staff is proposing three options that would address such concerns as the effect of too many exemptions, missed opportunities, the need for a healthy mix of uses and retail saturation.

The city could break up the existing overlay district into three smaller clusters; permit office uses temporarily or permanently; or shrink the boundaries, Community Development Director Rita Tungare said. She said the boundaries drawn in 2006 were based on existing and future potential uses.

“It was wishful thinking, so to speak,” Tungare said.

Fourth Ward Alderman Jim Martin said he isn’t happy with any of the proposals.

“We fought really hard to get the first-floor retail enacted several years ago,” he said.

“We have to get something in those vacancies that is substantial and will stay, and I don’t think it’s office. You get an office in there, and they’ll never want to leave.”

Third Ward Alderman Bill Turner said rent is a big obstacle for potential downtown businesses, especially the mom and pop establishments.

“Who’s got the money to pay the rent for that square footage?” he said.

Fifth Ward Alderman Maureen Lewis agreed. She owned a ceramics painting studio downtown from 1999 to 2004.

“The rent is prohibitive,” she said. “[Landlords] can only give you a break for so long.”

Third Ward Alderman Ray Rogina, who favored the smaller overlay clusters, said the city shouldn’t discount an educational presence downtown.

Committee chairman Cliff Carrignan suggested a fourth option – lifting the overlay from Main Street for three to five years.

“I don’t see Main Street as being pedestrian friendly,” he said.

Two City Council candidates – 5th Ward alderman candidate Kim Malay and mayoral candidate Jotham Stein – spoke during public comment. Malay asked whether the interest for downtown office space warrants a change, and Stein – who said the proposals “put the cart before the horse” – requested the item be tabled until after the April 9 election.

Tungare said staff will investigate the issues brought up Monday night and will return with responses to the questions asked.

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