By KEVIN NEVERS
No one knows right now how the Chesterton Town Council is going to jump when
it votes on the planned unit development ordinance which would govern the
design of the regional mall proposed by GK Development of Barrington, Ill.
The Advisory Plan Commission is just that: advisory. Should the planners
themselves endorse the PUD, the council is under no obligation to accept
their recommendation. The council is likewise free to enact that ordinance
against planners‚ advice.
One thing is certain, however: if the council does green-light the project,
it will have the absolute burden to prove to Chesterton residents why the
construction of 351,419 square feet of retail and hospitality on property
chiefly zoned I-1 and I-2—and located less than a quarter of a mile from an
R-1 district—is not a betrayal of both the letter and the spirit of the
Comprehensive Plan which members unanimously adopted in September 2004.
To be sure, the Comprehensive Plan is not a binding document. Rather, it’s
an articulation of general policies, and of detailed recommendations for
implementing those policies, by which to determine and manage land use in
the Town of Chesterton over the next 20 years. Chesterton officials and
local businesspeople spent more than three years revising the Comprehensive
Plan—last touched in 1994—and the document purports to be their consensus on
how the town should look and could look in 2023.
Although one would be hard pressed to recall the last time a member of the
Town Council actually cited the Comprehensive Plan when casting a vote, it
will undoubtedly play a pivotal role in the GK proceeding. At least it
should. It was crafted with precisely such a purpose in mind. As the
document itself notes, “The Plan is intended as a guide for day-to-day
decision making” (p. 45).
So what decision on the PUD ordinance would one anticipate from the Town
Council were it adhering to the policies and recommendations of the
The Future Land Use Map
Begin with the zoning of the 40.80 acres in question. Except for the extreme
northwestern corner of the property—the current site of Nielsen Nissan—the
whole of it is zoned industrial. According to the Comprehensive Plan’s
Existing Land Use Map (fig. 2.9), that fact makes it a rarity in Chesterton,
one of only six industrially zoned parcels in the entire town and one of
only three with direct access to a “regional arterial route” like Ind. 49 or
Ind. 149. The Comprehensive Plan’s Future Land Use Map (fig. 2.9)—to which
the Town Council gave its blessing less than two years ago—acknowledges that
rarity, and affirms the value, of that zoning by retaining it.
As it is, of the town’s 5,682 acres, those six industrial districts account
for only 264 acres or 5 percent of the whole (p. 26). Converting this
particular property into retail and hospitality—for the sake of argument,
say that 35 of the 40.80 acres are I-1 or I-2—would take more than 13
percent of those 264 acres out of industrial play forever.
Is there no other site in town suitable for a regional mall? Evidently PBR
Development of Chicago thinks that there is: at Coffee Creek Center. But no
matter. The Comprehensive Plan projects the addition, through annexation, of
2,766 acres of “business/industrial” districts by 2023 (p. 26). The Future
Land Use Plan divides that acreage into two big chunks: the first, to the
northeast, bounded by I-94 and the CSX right-of-way and extending east to
Brummitt Road; the second, to the southwest, bounded by C.R. 1050N, the
Indiana Toll Road, Ind. 49, and Ind. 149. Given time, a far better site than
either C.R. 1100N or Coffee Creek Center is likely to become available in
Chesterton, one—for instance—accessible directly from I-94.
Any Town Council members who vote to enact this PUD ordinance must first
explain why exactly they think it a good idea to jettison a prime industrial
district specifically designated as such by the Comprehensive Plan’s Future
Land Use Map.
And they must explain why, in contrast to the gradualism of the long view
taken by the Comprehensive Plan, they perceive an immediate need to
sacrifice that prime industrial district to the first regional-mall
developer who comes knocking.
A Guideline, a Policy,
and a Recommendation
The stakes involved in the productive use or permanent loss of an industrial
district find expression throughout the Comprehensive Plan.
•From the Planning Guidelines in the Introduction to the General Development
Plan: “Chesterton’s fiscal and economic future will require increased
industrial and/or business development. Prime industrial and/or business
land should be provided in locations compatible with adjacent uses and
transportation facilities” (p. 45).
•From the Statement of Policy for the Economic Development of the Town of
Chesterton: “Encourage growth of small and light industries and offices to
diversify and strengthen the tax base and provide employment” (p. 69).
•And from Industrial Land Use Recommendations: “Infrastructure planning
should be accomplished to encourage and support a range of business and
industrial uses that also help deliver alternatives to the area’s steel and
manufacturing uses” (p. 52).
Let’s consolidate: Chesterton’s fiscal and economic future requires the
growth of small and light industries, the expansion of office space, and the
diversification of business in order to provide alternatives to employment
in steel and manufacturing.
When the Comprehensive Plan calls for alternatives to employment in steel
and manufacturing, it surely isn’t referring to low-wage, part-time jobs in
retail and hospitality. If this document is to carry any weight at all, it
must be referring instead to quality-wage, full-time jobs requiring skills
or education and capable of supporting a family.
When the Comprehensive Plan calls for the diversification of business, it
can hardly be referring to the diversification into retail and hospitality.
Chesterton already has a big-box retailer, a clutch of strip malls, and a
respectable mix of fast-food, family, and fine dining. If this document is
to make any sense at all, it must be referring instead to the
diversification from retail and hospitality.
Any Town Council members who vote to enact this PUD ordinance must also
explain why they prefer employment in retail and hospitality to that in
industrial, and why their preference should trump the Comprehensive Plan’s
stated principle, policy, and recommendation.
And they must explain why their expectations for Chesterton’s fiscal and
economic future are so dramatically lower than the Comprehensive Plan’s.
Coming and Going
Under the GK proposal, Chesterton would gain a Kohl’s, a Target, and no one
knows what else. What might the town lose?
The first of eight recommendations for the promotion of economic
development: “Develop and implement a business retention and expansion
strategy” (p. 69).
The construction of the GK mall would necessarily entail the demolition of
facilities serving three existing firms: Nielsen Nissan (14 full-time jobs),
Priority Transportation Inc. (60 full-time and two part-time), and USA
Logistics (10 full-time). Now at the public hearing convened by the Advisory
Plan Commission on Feb. 22, representatives of Nielsen and Priority both
indicated that they plan to build better facilities elsewhere and anticipate
no need to reduce their workforces, while the Priority rep went so far as to
say that the company hopes to remain in Chesterton.
Maybe all three firms will find new locations in town. But maybe they won’t.
(Of course, if Priority does obtain acreage in an industrial district in the
Town of Chesterton, it will have won a zero-sum game and deprived some other
firm of the use of that same acreage.)
Any Town Council members who vote to enact this PUD ordinance must explain
as well how the decision to countenance the eviction of three firms from
their present digs, with the possible if not probable loss of some 80
full-time jobs to other municipalities, is consistent with the business
retention and expansion strategy recommended by the Comprehensive Plan.
On the Strip
On one issue the Comprehensive Plan could scarcely be clearer.
One of the five recommendations for the use of business land: “In general
business areas, it is recommended that business land use activities be
guided into developments that integrate with surrounding land use and/or
provide for future integration wherever possible, and that strip business
development should be avoided.:
The regional mall proposed by GK is not simply an example of strip
development, but of strip development on a colossal scale. In the equivalent
square footage you could fit the new Jewel/Osco and the old one, the new
WiseWay Foods and the old one, the mall at 757-761 Indian Boundary Road, the
Pavilion Center, the old United Tractor facility, and the Lakeshore Bone &
Joint Institute. And still have around 50,000 square feet to play with.
Any Town Council members who vote to enact this PUD ordinance must explain
too why they believe it wise to reject outright the explicit position of the
Comprehensive Plan on strip development.
In the Neighborhood
With all of the concerns expressed by opponents of the mall over traffic
congestion and danger at the intersection of C.R. 1100N and Ind. 49, it’s
easy to forget that many of the mall’s customers—nearly everyone who lives
west of Ind. 49 and south of Broadway—would be unlikely ever to venture near
that intersection. Far more prudent for them to access the mall by its back
door on Rail Road, via C.R. 100E.
Two of the 15 recommendations for the use of residential land:
•“Residential land use should be protected from excessive noise, odor, and
traffic associated with large business or industrial uses” (p. 48)
•“Planned integrated shopping facilities to serve the residential areas
should be convenient, pleasant, and have adequate parking. Non-residential
traffic should be routed around neighborhoods, not through them” (p. 48).
Any residents of C.R. 100E or Tamarack who have bought or built a home since
the opening of Rail Road have made a calculation (those who bought or built
prior to the opening never had the opportunity to make such a calculation),
based on the current and expected uses of the 40.80 acres in question and of
the land in Coffee Creek Center. Possibly they’ve had misgivings about the
latter, although Coffee Creek Center is accessible from so many points
besides Rail Road—Dickinson Road, Sidewalk Road, Ind. 49, and Gateway
Blvd.—that visitors have their pick of ways in and out of it. But they
probably never spared a moment to think that Nielsen, Priority, and USA
Logistics would be razed and a 351,419-square foot mall sandwiched between
Rail Road and C.R. 1100N, with their quiet neighborhood smack in the middle
of the single best route to and from the mall for those who live to the west
and north of it.
Finally, any Town Council members who vote to enact this PUD ordinance must
explain to a homeowner who bought or built in good faith on C.R. 100E or in
Tamarack why they are disregarding at his expense the Comprehensive Plan’s
recommendations for preserving the character of a neighborhood.
Endorsers and Adopters
of the Comprehensive Plan
Six of the current seven members of the Advisory Plan Commission voted to
endorse it: George Stone, Michael Bannon, Jeff Trout, Sigmund Niepokoj, Fred
Owens, and Steve Yagelski.
Three of the current five members of the Town Council voted to adopt it:
Sharon Darnell, James Ton, and Michael Bannon.
Their names are all listed on the second page of the document.