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Downtown Itasca and Riverwalk

Downtown Itasca and Riverwalk

As Chicago’s population booms and the city expands, many once-rural areas are being swallowed up in increasing urbanization. The resultant threat of urban anonymity has spawned a nostalgic longing for a simpler, warmer environment, and many suburban Chicago towns and villages are striving to return to that sense of community. One example of such an effort can be seen in the Village of Itasca, which has invested in a plan that will help draw the community together in the manner of towns long ago.

Itasca has long been proud of its residents’ sense of closeness, encouraged by the physical layout of the Village itself—a trait noted in the Downtown Strategic Action Plan, which states, “Of particular note is that the residential community measures about 1-1/4 mile by 1-1/4 mile square, meaning that, even today, virtually every home in Itasca is within walking distance of downtown and the Metra commuter rail station.”

With the addition of the new Riverwalk, residents and visitors will be treated to additional walking routes through the Spring Brook Nature Center, building an even stronger feeling of an old-time neighbor- centered community. The new walkway begins at the historic Village Hall at Walnut Street and Irving Park Road, and winds west, through the Village and the Spring Brook Nature Center, ending at the Municipal Complex in the northwest corner of the park.

Nature Center

Itasca Mayor Jeff Pruyn takes pride in the innovative plan, saying, “What we’ve tried to do is create a walkable community with more of a sense of a gathering place, tying in nature and education with exercise.” Making the area walkable is a goal encouraged by the Leave No Child Inside program, a Chicago Wilderness initiative designed to fight childhood obesity.

According to Village Trustee Jeff Aiani, the initiative’s goal is to get children away from an electronic environment and the sedentary lifestyle it fosters, and outside where they can enjoy healthy physical activity while connecting with nature. “It’s a national movement,” says Aiani, adding that the new Riverwalk is an exciting new concept in blending education, health and community pride.

To that end, the Riverwalk connects the Nature Center, Flint Creek Rehabilitation Center and Health World to create a major nature compound designed to promote outdoor physical activity. According to Mayor Pruyn, the walkway plans include “pod areas,” decorative stations where interactive exercise equipment or information on nature will be presented. “We’re still working on that package right now,” he says, adding that the information station might consist of a series of signs, or it could include places for visitors to plug in their iPods to receive audio information.

But the Itasca downtown revitalization doesn’t start and end with the Riverwalk. Aiani is enthusiastic about the future of the downtown, citing the Riverwalk project as just the kickoff. “We are fortunate to enjoy great cooperation with the school, parks and fire district, as well as the library,” he says. He cites exciting plans for the Village, including new, more upscale shops and restaurants, as well as residential areas. A big part of that effort includes increasing the visual appeal of the area.

“We’ve made landscape improvements on the intersection of Orchard and Walnut streets, as well as redoing the Veterans Memorial landscaping in Usher Park, right next to downtown. We’ve been investing in beautification to attract new businesses, and have seen the addition of a new wine shop, as well as two new restaurants on Walnut Street. He adds that a new building completed last summer contains condos on the top two floors with offices on the second floor and ground-level space for retail shops, ready to be leased.

Aiani is proud of the “small-town hamlet” flavor Itasca has. “We have small shops—no auto dealers or big stores. It’s very small and very quaint with a sort of nostalgic New England type of feel to it.”

As for the future, Aiani hopes the Village will continue to grow and be successful. “If the residents are happy and the business community is happy and there are no vacant shops downtown, we’ll be a success,” he says. “We want to make downtown a thriving place where people can shop and eat and socialize.”

Small-town environment with big-city amenities: Itasca is looking to the past to create an exciting future.

For more information on Itasca’s plans for the future, visit the Village Web site at www.itasca.com.

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