By Dan Haley
It wasn't so many years ago that I suggested in this space that the corner of Lake and Forest would be David Pope's fresh canvas as president of a newly reconstituted Oak Park village board.
It was a new development site with the key corner parcel having just been purchased by a credible developer. No one in their right mind was going to claim that the one-story, fake-rock-clad grocery store and pancake house was worth preserving for its history or its architecture. The site had already been pegged as a key redevelopment site in the village's painstakingly, gut-wrenchingly crafted Downtown Master Plan. And finally, with its own crumbling parking garage surrounding the site on two sides, the village had effective control of the site and whatever project might come.
This then, after the years of insanity over just how hideous our public processes could make what came to be known as Whiteco, after a council war over absurd efforts to save an obsolete retail building in downtown. Oak Park was left with an apartment building on Harlem that looks like it was built in Moscow during the Soviet era and the world's most expensive 100-car parking lot on Lake Street. Plus our reputation among developers was in tatters and our collective political psyche was down for the count.
But Lake and Forest was still dripping with development dew. Ripe and ready to be plucked by a village president sporting a newly aligned and forward-focused village board.
What could go wrong? I asked. Pope & Co. could prove that Oak Park was capable of getting a deal done, of building a worthy project that would draw the eye and not repulse it.
Now you may have noticed while doing your Christmas shopping in Downtown Oak Park that the corner of Lake and Forest remains uncluttered by a 21-story, mixed-use, glass and steel mini-skyscraper. The parking garage is still there, freezing and thawing, with its dank stairwells and sometimes operational elevators.
OK, so I was wrong. Sue me. Something about a real estate bubble, a Great Recession, the village's obsession with forcing a hotel into the developer's plan, and, of course, pesky neighbors, nostalgic for a pancake house with bad pancakes.
Now, though, it is a new day, a new village president, a new corner of Oak Park utopia ready to be developed: South Boulevard and Harlem. Let your brain find the picture for you. Yep, right by that bottleneck of a viaduct. Uh-huh, the street jogs, making it hard to not run over CTA-goers as one heads toward Forest Park and Goldyburgers. Didn't there use to be an Arby's, of all things, that always seemed to be empty? Oh, that's right, Oak Park paid way too much to buy the three parcels that make up this gorgeous corner and no one remembers — or wants to remember — just how much cash that amounted to because we are about to write it down.
But there are four credible developers with plans in hand. The economy is better, at least for the moment. President Anan Abu-Taleb is fully focused on economic development. And does this location even have neighbors who care whether what is built is nine stories or 14?
This could be Abu-Taleb's fresh canvas. He has somehow convinced those critics uncomfortable with change that it just might be OK and is also inevitable. He has turbo-charged village hall staff. Now if he can only shortcut the 500-hour minimum on public hearings, kvetching and discussion of window treatments, Anan might just get something built in this burg.