Wheaton's Peaks and Valleys Common for DuPage Downtowns

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Byline: Christy Gutowski And Robert McCoppin Daily Herald Staff Writers

John Sipek has been serving up pastrami on rye at his Wheaton deli for 31 years.

Patrons breeze in and out of the downtown shop for a quick bite, the morning newspaper and, on occasion, to talk baseball with Jimmy Piersall, a deli regular.

But weary from struggling to stay afloat in a downtown often called "at risk," Sipek is selling his Korner Deli at Main and Wesley streets and retiring.

He joins three other prominent downtown merchants who soon will bid farewell to downtown Wheaton.

The somber news comes on the heels of several recent success stories.

"It's kind of like someone is hitting us over the head with a two-by-four," said Carla Citrano, manager of the Downtown Wheaton Association, "... just when you think something wonderful is happening."

Refurbished storefronts. Expanded retail space. More parking. Three soon-to-open restaurants.

All seemed to signal an end to the retail doldrums of late.

The ups and downs that Wheaton is going through are common in downtowns across DuPage County, where leaders are trying to coax shoppers out of malls and back into their towns' heart.

Slowly, towns are fighting back with myriad strategies to fill vacant and underutilized buildings.

Every town has its own tactic - be it attracting national anchor stores in Naperville or building upscale condos and town houses, as is the case in Wheaton.

- West Chicago, for example, plans to buy and level five old buildings on Main Street to make for a better view of the rehabbed train station and create more parking.

- Carol Stream spent $3.8 million to build a town center near busy Gary Avenue, complete with a fountain, gazebo and gently curving walking paths cobbled with bricks.

- A plethora of new eateries is helping take Glen Ellyn to the next level.

- Wood Dale offered tax incentives to hook Target and also a grocer for its oldest shopping center, Georgetown Square.

- Lombard has spent about $20 million in downtown street and road repairs since 1989.

The goal in each town is the same - to bring back the customers.

To do that, planners stress a couple critical factors, all relating to a good mix of residential, retail and ample parking.

The first ingredient is having people live downtown to shop at retail stores outside office hours. For that, you need residential units, like the condominiums being built near downtown Glen Ellyn, Lisle and Wheaton.

Secondly, a downtown needs to have enough public parking for people to drive to, yet not so much parking that it gets in the way.

Wheaton is addressing its parking needs with a new 400-space garage that partially opened before the holiday shopping season last year. …