By the time you start your 2011 Christmas shopping in Oak Park, things could look quite a bit different.
Village hall is moving light-speed-ahead to spruce up the shopping areas on the 100 blocks of South Marion Street and South Oak Park Avenue. The village will dish out some $5 million to upgrade the streets with bricks, granite sidewalks and decorative street lamps.
The village board was set to approve a $400,000 contract Tuesday for a firm to do engineering work on the two street projects. And last week, village hall sent out feelers, asking for companies to manage the high-profile construction project.
If all goes as planned, work should start on the two streets by the end of April and wrap up by mid-November, said Village Engineer Jim Budrick.
Along with those two blocks, Oak Park is hoping to dress up three other intersections in Oak Park's main shopping district — near Lake Street's intersections with Forest, Marion and Oak Park. The village had applied for about $18.4 million in federal funds to allocate toward the effort, which was expected to total about $23 million, according to the village's application.
But the village got word recently that it wouldn't be receiving any of those dollars in the competitive process, according to Budrick.
Oak Park also approved a contract back in November for the Lakota Group consulting firm to put together designs for the two projects, as they did for a restreeting of the 100 block of North Marion. Officials hope they can create magic similar to that street, where, after the former pedestrian mall was opened to vehicle traffic, storefronts have filled up.
To go with Lakota's work, the village formed a committee that consists of business owners, government officials and construction professionals to help figure out what, exactly, Oak Park wants the new streets to look like. That group has been meeting most Wednesdays since December.
Mary Jo Schuler, co-owner of the Marion Street Cheese Market and Greenline Wheels on South Marion, is on the committee. She says the group has nearly finished with design elements for the new streets, which will be very similar to the block north of the tracks. They'll use brick streets, lights that are similar in appearance but more energy efficient, and similar sidewalks that are easier to clean. The group hopes to have a first draft of the street layout done by February.
The Park District of Oak Park plans to spruce up Mills Park near Marion and Scoville Park near Oak Park Avenue. Shuler says the committee hopes the two parties can work together to make the projects complement each other. She thinks the results will help spur more people to open businesses in Oak Park.
"I commend the leadership from village hall for making this a priority for our community," she said.
Nick Gambino, owner of Cucina Paradiso just west of Oak Park Avenue on North Boulevard, is also a member of the committee. He agrees that the street project will help meld together Oak Park's shopping district near Lake Street and Oak Park Avenue. At the same time, he hopes the village does whatever it can to minimize the impact on businesses during construction.
"I'm sure the village wants to make it as painless as possible so nobody suffers," said Gambino, who also served as president of the Avenue Business Association for three years. "But realistically, I think there's always going to be some form of difficulty, and I think as business people we have to persevere and deal with a little inconvenience in the short term to have a better long term."
Village President David Pope, who has been a vocal proponent of the street projects, could not be reached for comment Monday.
On the other side, Trustee John Hedges has voiced skepticism about whether the roadway fix-up is worth the hefty price tag. He had hoped Oak Park would come up with some numbers to show what kind of return the village can expect on its investment.
"Maybe we could do something that would be more productive with that money to support the businesses, and I just don't know what that is right now," he said. "I don't have an alternative, but I'd like to look for those alternatives before we invest that kind of money."
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