There can be too much of a good thing.
A decade ago, downtown Highland Park was invaded by banks. Lots of banks. Different banks. Clicks-and-mortar banks. Private banks. So many banks, the City Council considered ways to keep out yet more banks, and eventually zoned the downtown a . Smart move, as many of those banks have merged, consolidated, folded or retreated due to over-development.
A few years ago, Highland Park residents fretted over empty downtown storefronts. How was it that the corner of Second and Central, home to a Gap for many years and Chestnut Court books before that, had stood vacant for so long? What about the one-time-Gsell's at St. Johns and Central?
In the last few months, something different has been happening in downtown Highland Park, and I'm not sure it's for the better. Sure, it's wonderful that the Starbucks at Renaissance Place renovated and brought in a Clover machine (review in a future column, perhaps). I, though perhaps not my wallet, am thrilled to see Z Gallerie open up next to Michael's. The lovely new Coldwell Banker office at the corner of Port Clinton Square marks a dramatic improvement over the empty shell of Columbia Audio/Video that stood there for way too long.
Among these new tenants, though, we have a sudden influx of copycats. Cupcakes, coffee, ice cream and other cuisine. It is as if someone suddenly decided that it doesn't matter what kind of business they are, just sign them up for a storefront in Highland Park! Somehow, literally facing off on Central, -- sandwiched between in Ravinia and in Highwood. In the mood for ice cream or frozen yogurt? Well, Highland Park is for you. In downtown alone, in addition to packaged product at the usual outlets, we now have Love's, Dairy Queen, Homer's at Potbelly,Yogen Früz at Michael's, Arriva Dolce gelato and yet another gelato place coming into the Border's space on Central.
Looking for something more unique? Downtown Highland Park now features a yarn store near the bead store near a paper store.
I am all in favor of new business moving into Highland Park. But something is wrong, and others sense it as well. According to a Patch news story earlier this week, a group of their vision for downtown Highland Park. Since the Downtown Business Alliance already existed as a public/private partnership, there must be a reason for the merchants to organize additional advocacy.
Perhaps the reason is that we seem to be taking all comers. I'm sure some of our new businesses will be successes for now and long into the future. But two gelato shops opening within months of each other? That's poor planning that virtually ensures neither will do well. There just aren't that many gelato eaters in Highland Park. Those that are have probably had a "real" gelato experience, Italian-style, vs. the little dixie cups of bland, manufactured ice cream that I experienced at newcomer Arriva Dolce. Perhaps the next place will be better, but I hate to see them have to fight it out in just a few city blocks of our downtown.
When he ran for City Council, Tony Blumberg brought his experience from the Plan Commission and , "Good planning requires forward thinking. While we do have the immediate problem of wanting to bring in commercial income, we need to think about how we're going to do that in the long haul." Right now, we seem to be hovering just at the friction point of whether downtown Highland Park needs quality or quantity. I believe there is a way to balance both. The city and the Downtown Business Alliance, representing all its members, need to be mindful advocates of what we want downtown Highland Park to represent.