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National Perspective | AMERICAN ALBUM

'Edge City' is attempting to build a center

Officials in Schaumburg, Ill., are trying to change the suburb's face by creating a downtown from scratch.

January 01, 1998|JUDY PASTERNAK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SCHAUMBURG, Ill. — Since incorporating in 1956, this has been the ultimate faceless postwar suburb.

These days, nearly 74,000 people live in its townhomes and subdivisions 26 miles northwest of Chicago. Automobiles zip along major traffic corridors, and 65 shopping centers line its streets--among them, the 2.7 million square feet of the mighty Woodfield Mall. Nordstrom, Lord & Taylor, Sears, Circuit City, Target, Toys R Us . . . all present and accounted for.

And along the expressways, glassy towers have sprouted, with names like Motorola and Zurich-American Insurance Group planted near the top, giving Schaumburg an employment base that rivals the number of businesses in downtown Philadelphia, Washington, Dallas or Portland, Ore.

But something's been missing.

"We wanted a village center," said Schaumburg Village President Al Larson. "A place that people could walk to. A place to stop and have a cup of coffee."

The concept, while not unheard of, was but a faint municipal memory. The last time Schaumburg had a downtown, the merchants included a blacksmith, a wagon dealer and a shopkeeper selling all sorts of dry goods to the surrounding German dairy farmers. The year was 1875.

Now the quintessential "Edge City" is trying to retrofit.

Schaumburg is building a downtown from scratch, at the same crossroads where the smithy and the general store once stood. But the experiment is hardly the return to Main Street that has taken hold in havens of neo-traditionalism like Celebration or Seaside, which are both front-porch, curved-path, brand-new developments in Florida.

Schaumburg's is not a small-town core, like the downtowns that already exist in older, inner-ring communities that developed around train depots long ago. This is a distinctly suburban phenomenon.

The new library is taking shape, outlined in gray concrete and steel girders. Once open, it is expected to lure a million visitors a year.

The brick clock tower and the green wrought-iron gazebo are in place, next to the pond, near the patio and the curved benches and the "No Skateboarding" sign.

The grocery store, the health food store, the Realtor, the jeweler and the bagel shop are open.

A chain restaurant is in the works, and Larson hopes a brew pub will move in.

A museum, which for now must go unnamed, is negotiating for a prime parcel near the roadway.

Fittingly, the local government tore down a faded strip mall on the 30-acre site to make way for this gathering place.

Although incomplete, this district already has its fans.

"It gives me a little more pride. It finishes the town," said Helen Giuliano, buying a bagel with her 23-year-old daughter, Gabbie.

They had come there because the grade-school chorus was about to present an outdoor holiday concert.

"People knew Schaumburg because of the mall," Giuliano said. "We didn't know what we didn't have. We didn't know any better."

The council is thinking about permitting ice-skating at the park this winter. And by spring, 16-inch softball--a Chicago sporting-scene staple--will be played in league games just to the south.

Still, the old ways--the more recent old ways--die hard.

The shopping-center mecca has christened its downtown with a shopping-center name: "Town Square."

There is no Main Street. Indeed, there are no streets at all to speak of. The supermarket and the small stores border a large parking lot that gives the development's retail section the appearance of . . . well, the look of a shopping center.

"It's plastic," grumbled Jon Rosenberg, a supervisor at Hava Java Bagel at the east end of a brick row of stores and archways. "That's Schaumburg for you." Larson countered: "This is the suburbs. You have to have parking."

Will the blend work? Will community blossom in Town Square? "I'm not saying everybody's going to join hands and sing 'Kumbaya,' " Larson said.

"But before, the only place was the mall, and everyone from the whole region went there. Now the people of Schaumburg will have a strolling place, where we can gather and mingle and intermix."

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