Water Street District's debut wows in downtown Naperville

Marie Wilson, Originally published in the Daily Herald - Nov. 15, 2016

After almost 10 years and $93 million, a redevelopment effort massive even for Naperville and its vaunted downtown takes center stage this week.

The Water Street District brings the downtown its first hotel in modern times, creating a hospitality destination with a wedding reception and banquet space. Overall, there will be five new restaurants, several shops, a new plaza with a fountain, a parking garage, public art and 500 more feet of Riverwalk path.

Immediately east of the Naperville municipal center and south of the DuPage River, the 2.4-acre site used to be described, at best, as "underused" and, at worst, "dilapidated." Now, it's "wow."

"This is anchoring the south end of the downtown. It couldn't be small. It couldn't be passive," said Christine Jeffries, president of the Naperville Development Partnership. "It had to be 'wow.'"

One Great Recession after the project first was discussed in Naperville, business leaders say they're impressed with the face-lift several have called a "game-changer."

Water Street District is among a new wave of redevelopments making major changes in the suburban landscape after the recession. Similarly transformative projects are under way, for example, next door in Lisle and 30 miles northeast in Wheeling.

Marquette Cos., the Naperville firm doing the Water Street District, also is building Main Street Village, 200 apartments atop new restaurant and retail spaces on a long-vacant corner site that housed Lisle village hall until its demolition in 2003.

In Wheeling, where a massive Wickes Furniture building near the village hall has stood abandoned since 2008, developers WTC LLC and the Lynmark Group are launching a $110 million effort to create a downtown with a movie theater, 300 luxury apartments and plenty of dining destinations. The Wheeling Town Center plan first was approved in 2011 and was expected to be finished two years later; now it's scheduled to open in summer 2018.

While Wheeling is waiting, Naperville is beginning to enjoy the results of the hospitality destination it has pined for through nine long years and at least three major redesigns. Some of the Water Street District's "wow" factor comes because the project was led by a hometown developer who took the time to make the buildings reflective of the community, giving them a personality in the details that is all Naperville.

The limestone wall behind the front desk is reminiscent of the material mined from the quarry lake and the former quarry at nearby Centennial Beach. The reclaimed wood of the reception desk reminds visitors of Naperville's origins as a farming community. Exposed metal in some pieces pays homage to the Kroehler Manufacturing plant that assembled furniture on the north side of town.

Marquette Cos. drew inspiration for the site's design from European space-use theory and calculated building size and separation to make visitors feel comfortable, said Nick Ryan, Marquette's CEO. Brick exteriors, tall, curved windows and a second-story skybridge connecting buildings on both sides of Water Street give the area character, he says.

"These buildings are going to look like they've been here for 100 years when they're done," Ryan said.

Designers of the 158-room Hotel Indigo Naperville Riverwalk worked with historians at the Naper Settlement to find "cues from the local neighborhood" to make the hotel unique, said Doug Kelly, director of sales. In each room, one of four historical images is wallpapered across the entire wall behind the bed. Some visitors will see enlarged spools of thread from the Kroehler factory, for example, while others will see a textured, abstract look from a close-up of Naperville quarry limestone.

More than 40 hotel rooms are completely furnished and will be in use when the business opens Friday, with room rates from $130 to more than $400 a night. The entire hotel should open by January, and the full development is expected to be complete next spring. That's when five murals depicting historic life on Water Street will be placed along the Riverwalk, a new fountain in a Riverwalk plaza will start flowing and new shops and restaurants will be welcoming customers.

Southern Tide apparel claimed its place in Water Street history as the first business to open, launching Oct. 24 -- 557 days after the project's April 16, 2015, groundbreaking ceremony.

Soon to join Southern Tide will be another clothing boutique called London Skye and a children's play space and shop called Traveling Tots. Plank Bar & Kitchen will be the hotel's in-house restaurant, named for the old Plank Road, an early wooden toll road from Naperville to Chicago. Sparrow Coffee, a Chicago-based roastery and cafe, also is opening in a space near the hotel, and its brews will be served inside.

Most Water Street restaurants will offer outdoor dining, some of them along the Riverwalk plaza and one of them from a rooftop perch. Food and drink options will include SixtyFour -- A Wine Bar; Quiubo, Mexican fine dining; Santo Cielo, a farm-to-table eatery; Blue Sushi Sake Grill, an upscale Japanese restaurant; and State & Main, a British-style pub popular in Canada.

"Every vendor that we have is passionate about this place, and they're bringing their very best," Ryan said.

Naperville leaders are passionate about the new-look Water Street, too, saying it will grow to become even more vibrant and exciting as construction concludes and commerce takes off.

"We look at this as the evolution of business," said Nicki Anderson, president and CEO of the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce. "Naperville continues to thrive. ... We have a community that works together to make things happen."