Winnetka, News

Winnetka trustees want ‘visionary’ to design ‘town square’ project

Winnetka officials are starting to dream big as they begin to piece together a highly anticipated project that could drastically reimagine the center of the village. 

Trustees began to package preliminary details during a study session held Tuesday, March 12 about a route for the potential redevelopment of the U.S. Post Office location in the West Elm business district.

Winnetka Village President Chris Rintz opened the session by explaining what he described as two “fundamental paths” forward from where the village is today. 

The first avenue ahead, as outlined by Rintz, would be for the village to seek out and hire a high-profile practitioner and have them lead the redevelopment process. Rintz described the potential candidates the village would be looking for under this option as “international, state-of-the-art practitioners.” 

Although Rintz made it clear no design firm has been selected for the project yet, he said officials have had introductory conversations with Studio Gang, the prestigious architecture and urban design practice headquartered in Chicago and led by the renowned Jeanne Gang. 

Rintz described the design group as “internationally known” and one that has “a really interesting track record of public projects as well as private building and development projects.” 

Studio Gang has led architecture and planning efforts throughout the United States and Europe. The firm’s most notable local work is the Writers Theatre in Glencoe. 

The second option Rintz presented to the council was to move forward with a more local, regional design firm such as Teska Associates, the Lakota group or one of the other firms with which the village has recently worked. 

The rear/west lot of the post office site in Winnetka.

Moving forward with the second route would likely allow more opportunities for direct community feedback and input that could help shape the end result of the project but may also lead to a less cohesive design, trustees noted during discussion. 

Before looking to trustees for their feedback, Rintz said he was a “bit conflicted” on the two options. 

“I think knowing the way this community works and knowing how important that site is, taking it and handing it off to somebody really well-versed is attractive but I also know that it probably would be a challenge in this community because people have a lot of ideas about that piece of property and they want to share them,” he said.  

But while there was some initial hesitation from Rintz on the favored option moving ahead, trustees showed no doubt in asserting their favored path. 

The clear consensus of the board was to pursue the first option presented by Rintz and take a “visionary approach” to the project. 

“People, I think, recognize that this is a unique opportunity and it might be the last opportunity we have in Winnetka to develop such a large site and (they) want it to be something special,” trustee Kim Handler said. 

Trustee Bridget Orsic shared similar sentiments, noting that it would be exciting to have a design firm with pieces of history all over the city. 

“I think people are generally very excited about this idea and I would hate to just have it be a bunch of pavers and people that took too much direction and it ends up just being kind of basic,” she said. 

One of the challenges of designing the space, as trustee Kirk Albinson noted, is to make it aesthetically pleasing, something of interest and a design that fits well within the community even when it’s not being programmed. 

“I think that is the challenge and to pull that off you have to go a step beyond and be really a visionary to think through that,” Albinson said. 

“We have to be really mindful to be progressive and think ahead. What do we want the reaction to be 50 to 100 years from now from the community when we’re gone and our grandchildren are here. I would hope they have the same reaction that we have today with what the original plan was from the city.” 

As previously reported by The Record, Winnetka trustees first reviewed a concept plan presented by Rintz in 2022 for the redevelopment of the post office space. The plan proposed reimagining the site into a new public gathering space filled with amenities. 

The concept, at the time, was informally referred to as a “town square,” and officials suggested plans that would open the area to serve as a dedicated place for residents and special events. 

Since it was first publicly presented, Rintz has restated his vision for the project as developing a place where the community comes together. And, on March 12, he highlighted his belief that the design should keep Winnetka in mind first. 

“(This project) is for us,” he said. “Other people might want to come and see it, but this is our town center and we aren’t building it to make it a destination for the rest of Chicagoland to see an architectural installation. It really is for us. It’s our place to be. And if other people want to come and join us there, that’s cool and awesome and they should come and join us but our sensibility is as a community and it should be designed with that in mind.” 

Trustees revisited the project at a study session held earlier this year that reviewed priorities for 2024. While officials did not present a precise timeline during the meeting, Village Manager Rob Bahan did say the new U.S. post office at 586 Lincoln Ave. could be completed by January of 2025. 

Rintz concluded discussion by saying he is starting the interview process for an ad hoc post office committee and will keep the council posted as updates continue. 

“I have to think about the skill sets of the people sitting at the table to make sure we get a good, broad representation of the community and of the aesthetic piece too,” he said. 

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martin carlino
Martin Carlino

Martin Carlino is a co-founder and the senior editor who assigns and edits The Record stories, while also bylining articles every week. Martin is an experienced and award-winning education reporter who was the editor of The Northbrook Tower.

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