Bioswales. Native grasses. Wetlands. Natural water-filtration systems. These are all things that Mike Jaffe, owner and president of Chicago-based The Jaffe Companies, has worked to normalize in open-air community center development in the Midwest, and with undertakings such as the Arboretum of South Barrington, Illinois, he’s building a powerful case for his eco-minded cause. A five-year project that first opened its doors in 2008, the Arboretum is meticulously fashioned, from its masonry to its imported fountains to its parking lots—especially its parking lots. Jaffe details how his company created the regional commercial attraction from a portion of a 610-acre tree nursery.
1. Find a location
Despite the abundance of shopping hubs already dotting the suburban Chicago landscape, Jaffe’s research pinpointed South Barrington as a community in great need of its own gathering place. It was still far removed from the closest retail center, Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, Illinois, about eight miles away, and as a sprawling residential area, it inherently lacked proper social space. “Knowing that people were craving an authentic high-touch experience, we were really inspired to create a new downtown,” Jaffe says. “Not just for South Barrington but for that entire [northwest suburban] region.”
2. Make sure the community is interested
Convincing a suburban community to accept a new development—on an existing tree nursery, no less—is no easy task. But Jaffe has spent his career engaged in vanguard, eco-sensitive projects, and convincing the public has become a lot easier with experience. “Our company’s sensitivity to conservation—saving trees, protecting wildlife where you can, and safeguarding the water supply—those values were in my fabric early on,” he says.
3. Plan it out
The Arboretum’s shops, restaurants, walkways, and parking lots cover 82 acres of land, which is a sizable undertaking by any developer’s standards. Then, factor in the time it takes to design and cultivate natural water-filtering features on such land, and it becomes clear why Jaffe’s team devoted two to three years just to the town center’s layout. “There’s a side of this that’s of value to us when we’re leading the charge, rallying people to do something that’s going to enhance the landscape years after we’re all gone,” Jaffe says. “That’s one of the most rewarding pieces of it.”
4. Understand the engineering challenges
Jaffe and his team encountered a number of site issues during planning. “[The site] was much larger than just our tract; it ran through hundreds of acres,” he says, and figuring out how to choose and plant hundreds of mature trees to make up for those lost from the nursery posed distinctive logistical challenges. At the same time, the firm had to incorporate numerous systems for rainwater-runoff treatment, including bioswales, which collect and naturally filter water in parking lots, and it had to do so while plotting proper footpaths for patrons. “I think it’s relatively easy to plan something for just automobiles and manageable to do something for just pedestrians,” Jaffe says, “but marrying the two is not easy at all.”
5. Get approvals
“You have to just grind your way through all the approvals you need,” Jaffe says. “You can’t really do anything without them.” By the time all was said and done, his company had gone through nearly 25 jurisdictions connected to the property, including the US Army and a long list of government agencies.
6. Start the building process
During construction itself, two more key issues arose. First, Jaffe says, there was a “very rainy wet period” from 2007 to 2008 that threatened to hold up delivery dates for key building occupants. And second, at the same time, because of the increasing signs of impending national economic free fall in those same years, Jaffe was all but required to stay precisely on schedule so that nervous tenants couldn’t wiggle out of leases. “It was one of the worst weather stretches I can remember,” he says, “but we could not possibly take a chance on being late on delivery.”
7. Add the finishing touches
From its bronze horse statues to its public square in front of a broad movie theater, Jaffe’s finished Arboretum is yet another refined response to typical retail planning. “Rather than create the stress of ‘having to go to the mall,’” he says, “this is a shopping experience that people look forward to coming to and feel like it’s their very own.”