The City of O'Fallon, Illinois, at the eastern edge of the St. Louis metro area is a booming suburb, whose population has grown from 12,241 in 1980, to 16,073, to over 25,000 today. According to Planning Director Ted Shekell, "our biggest challenge is managing growth." During the ten years Ted has worked in O'Fallon, 3,000 new homes and 130 new commercial buildings have gone up -- some $700 million in private construction.
Doesn't sound like a small town. Yet, over breakfast at the St. Louis Bread Company, O'Fallon Planning Commission Chair Gene McCoskey -- an executive at Nestle Purina PetCare -- told me what he liked most about O'Fallon was its "small town feel, and sense of community." In fact, that's one of the things that attracted him to O'Fallon from St. Louis County, Missouri, ten years ago.
We ran into O'Falllon Mayor Gary Graham (right in photo, with Ted on left), also getting coffee at the St. Louis Bread Company. As though reading from the same book, Mayor Graham told me one of his key aims was to "keep that small town feel that O'Fallon has."
I asked Gene and the Mayor to expand on what they meant -- how can a growing suburb remain a small town? For Gene, part of the answer is "getting the right kind of growth." It also means maintaining "a sense of accountability" for kids as they grow up. That means a place with strong neighborhoods, schools, and churches -- a place "where people know each other."
Mayor Graham also made an interesting observation. Part of keeping a small town atmosphere involves "being responsive" as an elected official "and not talking down to anyone." The Mayor added that local boards -- especially the planning commission -- "have a huge responsibility in how they treat people and how the process is explained."
To Ted Shekell, a small town connotes stability. "Human beings have a need for constancy," he noted. Managing growth effectively can contribute to that.
But how does any of this get converted into planning policies? I asked Ted and Gene. One way, Gene said, is by having good design in neighborhoods.
Also, looking for places where it makes sense to "put some nicely designed commercial development near residential" that's consistent with keeping a residential feel in the neighborhoods. Ted added that the city doesn't want any commercial strips. Instead, the city's comprehensive plan calls for focusing small scale commercial development at key intersections in newly developing areas.
More on this ... and how it played out at Tuesday night's planning commission meeting in Part II.
[some photos of O'Fallon: the southern part of the city has older neighborhoods (top two photos); the north is newer and where most new development is occurring, and new facilities such as the YMCA have located]