Plans moving forward to expand First Street Plaza in downtown St. Charles

Plans to expand First Street Plaza in downtown St. Charles continue to move forward. At their Dec. 20 meeting, St. Charles plan commissioners unanimously recommended approval of the plans.

Plans to expand First Street Plaza in downtown St. Charles continue to move forward.

At their Dec. 20 meeting, St. Charles plan commissioners unanimously recommended approval of the plans. The plans will go to the St. Charles City Council’s Planning and Development Committee this month for review.

After City Council approval of the plans, it is expected the project will be put out for bid this month. Construction, which is expected to begin in the spring, would take nine months.

In 2020, alderpersons unanimously voted to purchase the former Manor Restaurant site at the southeast corner of Main and First streets for $1 million in order to expand the First Street Plaza.

The first phase of the expansion project was completed this past spring, which included building a retaining wall along the Fox River and filling in the hole where the Manor Restaurant had been located following its demolition. The second phase of the project includes a plaza featuring a solar pergola trellis along with the installation of public art.

Plans also call for closing First Street to vehicles to create a pedestrian walkway.

St. Charles Community Development Director Russell Colby told plan commissioners that a community survey was conducted to solicit input on concept designs for the plaza.

“The results of that survey showed that there was strong support for expanding the plaza out into the area that’s right now First Street and the closure of that street to expand the opportunity for pedestrian improvements,” Colby said.

During the pandemic in spring 2020, the St. Charles City Council approved expanding outdoor dining within the First Street public plaza spaces. The portion of First Street through the plaza area (Walnut Street to Main Street) was closed to vehicle traffic to allow for additional seating and pedestrian pathways during the outdoor dining season.

Colby said the expanded outdoor dining program was very successful and continued during 2021 and 2022. He said the City Council has expressed interest in creating a more cohesive layout in order to open up what had been the main public plaza spaces.

“The plaza expansion project will allow for outdoor dining to be relocated out of the central plaza areas, shifting some seating to locations along First Street,” he said.

Ken Henricks, president of Alter Brewing + Kitchen at 12 S. First St., was happy to see the project moving forward, but had concerns as well.

“As a small business that will bear the brunt, arguably bear the most brunt of this development, both positively and negatively during construction, I’m thrilled to see this come to fruition,” he told plan commissioners. “I think it’s a tremendous amenity to the community. But it’s a wait and see approach to replanting or reconfiguring the public dining space. … I think there’s opportunities here for coordination. Alter would love to have the opportunity to be involved in real-time planning for an optimal outcome.”

St. Charles Economic Development Director Derek Conley told plan commissioners the city is planning to meet with the businesses on First Street to hear their concerns about the project.

“I think the city is committed to working with the businesses to try to come up with the best possible outcome,” he said.

The expansion project includes a large egg-shaped gathering plaza that is surrounded by a solar panel covered trellis and walking paths, St. Charles Public Works Director Peter Suer told plan commissioners.

“Walkway and ramp systems allow for pedestrian friendly access throughout the site,” he said. “This obviously permanently closes First Street and it is designed to allow for unobstructed pedestrian passage through the site. It creates natural areas for things like seasonal markets and holiday displays and things like that.”

Site acquisition, design and construction costs for the first phase were about $2 million. With grants and donations totaling $794,171 – including a $600,000 grant from Exelon and a $56,153 Kane County Riverboat Grant – the city paid $1.2 million.

The project’s second and final phase is estimated to cost about $3.2 million. With donations received or pledged so far at $671,621, the city would pay about $2.5 million.

The St. Charles Initiative, an independent advisory committee under the umbrella of the Community Foundation of the Fox River Valley, is raising funds for the project. During a City Council Planning and Development Committee meeting in November, several alderpersons balked at the project’s cost.

Several alderpersons said the city’s priority should be creating the pedestrian walkway. They wanted to see how much it would cost just to do that portion of the project as well as what it would cost to complete the entire project.