Mercer Island sits south of the Liberty Sound, across from downtown Libertyville. Originally an island of summer homes and getaways for city dwellers, the island has become more developed due to its close proximity to the city and the expanding Libertyville metropolitan area.
Mercer Island is characterized by the narrow flat land to its north, the tall hills that is most of the island, and the flat south shore. Today, the island is connected with downtown through the Liberty Sound Harbor Bridge, and two tunnels. The island is also connected through freeways to the peninsulas to its west and east. Over the years, the flat land of its north shore has been developed into a mixed area of residential and commercial buildings. Its million-dollar view of the downtown skyline, the Stanley Park, and the Liberty River has made it a premier place for hotel developments, upscale homes, and most recently low to medium rise upscale condos.
The focal point of North Mercer is the North Mercer Business District, which sits directly across the bay from downtown. Because Mercer Island is well connected with all parts of the city, the Business District has become a convenient place for people to commute to. This district, which most Mercer Islanders never go to because it's too dirty and crowded, is going through major changes.
The district sits between Interstate 5 (Harbor Bridge) to its west, Interstate 90 to its south, and the central tunnel to its east. The peninsulas along the northern end are filled by early-era old money homes. The Business District is further back away from the water as a result. The district has been suffering from the following problems.
- Much of the district was used as a secondary office space, thus the planning was much less careful. Most of the district is low to medium rise, single-use commercial buildings, with a peninsula of wasted storage, warehouses, and light industry. While scatterred developments have been emerging here and there, the district desperately needs an integrated, overall, and long-term vision.
- The peninsula of warehouses have become deserted empty parking lots and areas of unknown use for a while. As industry moves away from the center of the city, this peninsula possesses incredible potential to fully realize its premier location.
- The areas on the two sides of the Harbor Bridge have long become parking lots and unfocused development, an area many consider dangerous. The noise from the Bridge "pushes" everything a block away from the bridge.
- Despite the land already used by upscale single-family homes and mansions, the area around the District can be further developed into a compact zone of residential, commercial, entertainment, and convention activities. It has the potential to serve as the hotel/lodging center in close proximity to downtown. Residential development may also attract the middle class and above to live in this area, if its natural beauty and amenities are strategically developed.
- North Mercer is the area that west-east traffic on I-90 frequently passes through, it should not be the "lost middle." It could become a center that attracts people and businesses from the west and the east.
The North Mercer Redevelopment Association (NMRA) has been working with the business sector, the government, and the local community to create a vision and plan for the area.
Overall Objectives: Liveability, sustainability, mobility. To develop North Mercer into a beautiful place to live, a convenient place to work, an attractive place to visit, a corridor for west-east I-90, and a distinctive area of activities that contribute to the energy and beauty of the Sound.
- Make the business district more compact, with a clear and controlled boundary.
- Continue Libertyville's "Living First" urban planning philosophy, bring residential/lodging to the business center and prioritize residential in the areas immediately surrounding the business district in order to create a wholesome, multi-functioned community. The district should be an independent area with all functions in businesses, retail, services, entertainment, and education.
- Bring good and plentiful jobs close to home. Gradually increase the amount of businesses, especially service businesses along the west-east corridor. New residents in North Mercer and other areas could go to work close by, or by public transit. It will reduce the need to leave the island to work and school, thus reduce traffic on bridges, tunnels, and freeways.
- Build North Mercer into an architecturally distinctive area that is visually different from downtown, preserve the overall character of Mercer Island, and ensure that the development is harmonious with the natural surrounding---the harbor and the island. Commercial buildings in the center of the district should not exceed 15 stories, while residential buildings should not exceed 10 stories. The average height should be much lower than downtown to leave an open view to the hills on the island and to avoid the feeling that the bay is surrounded by high-rise buildings. The height of buildings go down to the bay. It goes down to the surrounding areas. The overall density should be lower than that of downtown.
- Increase green areas in the form of parks, waterfront parks, walking/biking trails, "greenways," and street-level greenery.
- Preserve public access to the water within the area. Waterfront buildings must be low-rise, and residential, entertainment or service related. These buildings must be carefully designed to preserve maximum visual and physical access to water.
- Create waterfront places to visit. Waterfront amenities should be a combination of parks, ferries, waterfront dining, open squares, promenades, and shopping villages.