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Designing Highland Park's Future

With a water plant upgrade and a downtown redevelopment project in the works, our city leaders are planning for the future of Highland Park.

Over the last several weeks, the City of Highland Park has sponsored open houses for two potential future projects.

One has been in planning stages for nearly fifteen years; the other is just in the planning stages now. Whether viewed separately or together, both projects demonstrate the kind of big picture, forward thinking that city staff and officials can offer.

The first is a planned 2013 budget item. Highland Park's public works department is planning a major upgrade to the water treatment plant. First constructed in 1929, the plant is capable of processing 21 million gallons of water a day. The technology upgrade, should it be approved in the new city budget, would increase capacity by 50 percent utilizing new "space age polymer" (always wanted to write that phrase in a column) as a filtration system.

I toured the water plant at Councilman Paul Frank's invitation, along with 50 other Highland Park residents on November 19. Having lived here the majority of my life, I had never been inside the low brick building along the Park Avenue beach. I was genuinely surprised at the heavy industry taking place here in town -- tanks full of chemicals, room-sized generators, and the constant motion of water passing into our system. A lot of science and experience goes into making sure our water is the best it can be, along with the good fortune that the incoming quality from Lake Michigan is the best it has been in decades.

The new filtration system was said simply to provide "better water." Fewer chemicals would be needed, and the water would be cleaner, as the new filters would catch more impurities. I have heard from critics who say the upgrade is unnecessary, that the plant works fine today and provides more water than its 60,000 customers need except at peak summer usage. Still, the project appears to have the support of our city staff and elected officials, not just because of the capacity increase but also the potential to reduce the environmental impact of producing clean water.

One bit of trivia from the tour -- I asked the staff why we didn't do some form of "recycling," like taking in treated wastewater and purifying it rather than drawing from Lake Michigan. The surprising answer: by law, in Illinois wastewater must be channeled to the Mississippi River, not back into Lake Michigan. This avoids potential contamination of the drinking water supply. Good to know.

A concept with potentially far greater impact to Highland Park is the downtown 2020 redevelopment concept commissioned by the city. This plan, from the Lakota Group, envisions significant changes to the character of Highland Park's unique downtown. The general objective has been to improve the pedestrian and bicycle utilization of the downtown core, in keeping with the character of the streets already established.

The plan exhibits a strong preference for an urban-like setting. Buildings would be located without setbacks, and courtyards, parks, and water features added. Surprises to me included the idea of bending first street to join Green Bay Road before Vine Avenue, adding a small feeder street to run behind the Sunset Foods, and making Green Bay a two-lane road with street parking.

The 2020 downtown vision is just that, and the city cannot unilaterally enact many of the ideas that would impact private properties. However, as another wave of turnover hits the downtown retail core, it is clear that the time is now to enact a long term plan to preserve the character of Highland Park.

I have always been a fan of Daniel Burnham's famous "make no little plans" concept around city planning. Our city leaders could clearly have used the recent economic situation to go into survival mode only, but instead, are planning for the future of Highland Park. Whether all of these concepts and plans come to fruition, at least the city is driving forward.

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