NORTH CENTER — For years, North Center's Town Square has been a town square in name only, occasionally used for community events like an annual Easter egg hunt but more often serving as a well maintained vacant lot.
Plans to transform the square at 4100 N. Damen Ave. date back nearly a decade but, in the absence of funding, never came to fruition.
That's about to change.
Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) has set aside $500,000 to jump-start the square's makeover, with the goal of creating a true year-round hub for the neighborhood in the way that Giddings Plaza acts as a gathering place for Lincoln Square.
That half-million dollars might not cover the costs of a complete facelift — estimated at $1.5 million back in 2008 — but it's enough "to make a serious improvement," said Jim Poole, Pawar's chief of staff.
The ward office, Northcenter Chamber of Commerce and Northcenter Neighborhood Association hosted an official kick-off for the square's metamorphosis last week, starting with the announcement that the architecture firm Port Urbanism has been selected to develop a plan for the plaza.
Port Urbanism founding partner Andrew Moddrell said his team is in the early stages of what he expects to be be a four-month process.
With the firm having assessed the square's challenges and opportunities, Moddrell met with residents to present a broad spectrum of potential amenities, based in part on the results of a 2016 survey, and to solicit comment on those options, which will guide the direction of preliminary design concepts.
North Center Town Square All images Port Urbanism presentation]
The Town Square as it exists today is the very definition of uninviting, Moddrell said.
He listed the plaza's poor lighting, lack of signs and an adjacent cul-de-sac built to "auto scale," as some of the issues that make it less than welcoming.
One of the most glaring problems is the square's complete absence of places to sit, Moddrell said.
"It's not a place you can hang out," he said. "You could sit on a curb, but that's about it."
On the plus side, the plaza already has a number of mature shade trees and its location between Damen and Lincoln avenues has the potential to attract passersby, Moddrell said.
The task for the architects is to make the most of the positives and address the negatives to create a lively civic space. Though very little is set in stone at this point, Moddrell said Port Urbanism was moving forward with the assumption that the cul-de-sac on Belle Plaine will be closed to cars and integrated into the square.
Seating is an obvious addition, but Moddrell offered numerous examples of configurations that go beyond "dropping in a black steel bench."
There are also ways, he said, to incorporate lighting without just adding light posts, including integrating lighting into furnishings or public art.
Other amenities for neighbors to consider: a planted fence, a play area or play structures (not jungle gyms) for children, a micro-retail "boombox" for pop-up shops and a performance stage that won't feel empty when not in use.
Initial reaction from neighbors at the community meeting was overwhelmingly positive. Feedback included a reminder to planners to consider cold weather uses, as well as access for seniors and the disabled.
For those unable to attend last week's forum, Port Urbanism's presentation is embedded below. The Northcenter Chamber is gathering comments online by reactivating its Town Square survey (click here), and neighbors can also email their thoughts to the 47th Ward office at email@example.com.
Moddrell said he expects to have three fleshed-out concepts for residents to review in four to five weeks.
The main question hanging over last week's proceedings: How can the community be sure this isn't all an exercise in futility?
"We have money on the table," said Poole.
Some amenities may require a second phase of public or private funding, he conceded, but "we'll get you something."