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Naperville’s downtown nets high marks for bike- and pedestrian-friendliness

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Updated: May 29, 2013 7:02AM

Mark Fenton plans to make an example of Naperville.

The television personality, engineer and public health, planning and transportation consultant said that when he visits cities in other parts of the country, he’ll hold up Naperville as a place where the downtown reflects efficient, sensible and sustainable elements — particularly for those who aren’t in cars.

The host of “America’s Walking” on PBS, in town for a workshop at the Hotel Arista that focused on building sustainable communities, took about two dozen people on a walking assessment of the downtown area Friday morning, pointing out places that display visionary genius as well as those that could use a little improvement.

For the most part, Fenton thinks those who developed the area between the Municipal Center, North Central College and the Main Street Promenade appear to have grasped the fundamental principles of creating a flourishing urban core. That’s evident, he said, in the improvements made since he last visited the city eight or nine years ago.

He commended the group of city and county administrators, planners, elected officials and residents who came along to hear what he thought.

“It’s one thing to talk about (sustainable planning) theoretically,” he said. “It’s another to go out and experience it.”

While he has nothing against open space, Fenton advocates for development that builds in convenience without undue reliance on highway systems. Sprawling shopping malls strung along arterial roadways, surrounded by vast parking lots, do nothing to promote the health and environmental benefits of walking and bicycling, or the human interconnections that can have their start in public spaces.

“Start to moosh things together — think a nice dense downtown — and then you’re doing better,” he said.

At several points along the way, Fenton asked his companions to rate the segment they had just trod on a scale of 1 to 10. The Water Street District, soon to be redeveloped into a hotel and commercial center just south of the West Branch of the DuPage River, drew scores of 6 to 7, while the block of Chicago Avenue just east of Washington Street was rated slightly lower. Part of the rating, participants said, was due to the immediate proximity of the street and the parking lot outside Rosebud.

“And the noise level — you get caught up thinking about that,” said tour participant Mayor A. George Pradel.

Higher praise went to an open commons area on the North Central College campus that was established after Jefferson Avenue was capped at Brainard Street, a block west of where it used to dead-end.

“I think this is a dramatic improvement,” Fenton said. “This is a central core now.”

He also was pleased to learn that North Central students are able to used rented bikes to get around, in many cases leaving their cars parked for days at a time.

Fenton also liked the Barnes & Noble book store that dominates the northeast corner of Chicago and Washington, citing it as a good counter to the argument that major retail chains prefer remote malls to downtown areas, and snapping a photograph of it.

“That is a shot I will show all over the country, saying, ‘Yes, the big boys will play,’” Fenton said.

It’s a myth, he asserted, that the free parking in mall lots siphoned away shoppers in recent years from downtowns and their coin-operated parking meters — which Naperville doesn’t have. Instead, it was the malls’ centralized concentration of big-box retailers and the convenience they offer, and the incentives offered by local governments that attracted developers to put them there.

“That’s what killed the downtown hardware store,” Fenton said.

The down sides of remotely located malls go beyond estranging people from their neighbors and depriving local business owners of income, he noted.

“You’re subsidizing the auto industry when you do that, and you’re endangering public health,” he said. “If you encourage me to drive instead of walking or biking, you are increasing my risk of cardiovascular disease.”

He did have a suggestion when the group came to a stretch of angled parking spots a couple of blocks away, on Main just north of Jefferson: turn the spaces around.

Back-in angled or reverse diagonal parking alleviates such inherent risks in its conventional counterpart as people being hit by passing cars when they’re loading items into the car’s trunk and collisions with bicyclists or other vehicles when the driver backs into the street.

Fenton said cities such as Boulder, Colo., and Des Moines have begun using the twist on the more common front-entry parking.

“Particularly in environments where we’re trying to encourage bicycling, it’s becoming a design standard,” he said.

Still, he cautioned generally against being overly preoccupied with parking lots.

“Don’t let parking be the tail that wags the dog,” Fenton said.

Still, he acknowledged that he couldn’t find much fault in the way the downtown has been configured.

“You’ve done so much right, I had to come up with a suggestion I could give you.”

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