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O’Fallon Downtown Overlay District: Learning from the past

At its Feb. 28 meeting, O’Fallon’s City Council approved an ordinance [number 6553], establishing the Downtown Overlay District.  The core idea is to make it easier to build in downtown O’Fallon.

The zoning map for O’Fallon’s downtown overlay district [City graphic]

The Downtown Overlay District recognizes the unique and historic attributes of Downtown O’Fallon and encourages appropriate redevelopment and revitalization in this area with a mix of retail, service, office, government, institutional, religious, restaurant and hospitality uses together with residential uses. The new district allows greater design flexibility, makes allowances for the unique lot sizes in downtown and streamlines the review and approval process within Downtown.

O’Fallon Economic Development Director Patrick McKeehan said “the goal is to make business investment happen, based on the applicant’s needs instead of being public-sector-driven.”

O’Fallon Communications Director Tom Drabelle pointed out that downtown O’Fallon now is a more competitive alternative for businesses in other areas both inside and outside of O’Fallon. He said the Downtown area will be more accessible due to improvements to the I-70 at Route M exit and new Sonderen Road exit. He also noted that a few vacant lots still exist downtown, and are available for building and development.

Because the downtown area has relatively small lots, a delicate balance is required to provide enough parking spaces, green space for stormwater drainage and aesthetics, and adequate freedom of building design, while also making it economically feasible for the investor or builder. History has not been kind to this type of effort.

Twenty years ago, planning for downtown building and economic growth did not go well. Per Drabelle, that early approach was viewed by business owners and residents as a plan to “flatten downtown and then rebuild it.”

McKeehan said it was “a top-down plan that included controversial blight designations and selected use of eminent domain.” All of this resulted in a divided city council and opposition from businesses and residents. It went nowhere, then faded away.

About six years ago, post-Great-Recession, the council and others again recognized the need to enhance the economic viability and growth of the downtown area. Discussions and explorations occurred, with a goal of growing and building while maintaining existing zoning and building rules. This approach still was viewed as too rigid and top-down. Fear of what happened 20 years ago prevented those explorations from going anywhere, according to city officials.

About five months ago, city councilmembers Dave Hinman [Ward 1], Rick Lucas [Ward 1], Mike Pheney [Ward 5] and Debbie Cook [Ward 5] began discussions with Planning & Development Director David Woods and his staff, McKeehan, and other city staff, to explore what could be done to enhance growth in the downtown area.

Per McKeehan, one of the most important things they recognized was that a top-down, rigid approach simply would not work. He recalled an example of a local micro-brewery owner who had wanted to open a downtown coffee shop with inside and drive-through service. One-size-fits-all requirements for parking, green space, et cetera, threw up many barriers and made it more difficult for the business owner to proceed and open than it could have been.

Per McKeehan, this new downtown growth effort had to be more collaborative and bottom-up for the business owners, land owners and residents. Those stakeholder needs had to be identified, understood and accommodated, while somehow also meeting the city’s needs, he said.

McKeehan said that “instead of finding ways to discourage, O’Fallon had to find ways to encourage investment in the downtown area.” The city also had to rebuild trust with business owners and residents regarding downtown planning.

The city of O’Fallon working group facilitated numerous one-on-one meetings with downtown business owners along Main Street, individual residents and other interested parties from nearby O’Fallon areas. Overall, many of those stakeholders thought they were “doing OK,” but they also realized they could do better with the right environment.

The working group asked “how can we help you do this?”

City officials said it was clear that all truly wanted downtown O’Fallon to be an attractive destination for businesses, restaurants and their customers. It also was clear that rigid zoning requirements would not work for every business, every lot or every street. Flexibility and balance were needed.

Once the working group had proposals, those were discussed, revised and then re-discussed in public forums. McKeehan said much of the credit for the hard work required for the Downtown Overlay District proposal goes to David Woods and his staff, along with the four councilmembers who championed it.

Using the bottom-up approach and being collaborative resulted in zero opposition from the business community or residents. Any concerns they had were already addressed in the numerous one-on-one discussions, group forums, public comments meetings, and consequent proposal refinements, the city officials said.

In its final form, the Overlay District does not cost the city or its taxpayers anything.

Generally, the Overlay District’s northern boundary is just past St. Joseph Avenue; its eastern boundary is just past Sonderen Street; its western boundary is Woodlawn Avenue; and its southern boundary is I-70.

The District includes a total of 314 parcels. District Zoning includes residential R-2, R-3 and R-4; commercial C-1 and C-2; and Mixed-Use Traditional Development. Existing structures are grandfathered in with their existing zoning intact.

The District will accommodate standard building heights of 50 feet or three stories, but also establishes a process for considering building heights up to six stories under certain circumstances. There also are voluntary architectural, site design and signage guidelines.

The District also recognizes the unique, historical attributes of downtown.  Those include a mix of services, offices, government, retail establishments, restaurants, hospitality businesses, and religious organizations and institutions.

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