The curse of fresh canvas

Opinion: Dan Haley

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By Dan Haley

Editor and Publisher

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.

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Reader Comments

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Lynn Kamenitsa from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: February 3rd, 2014 3:01 PM

Don't be so hard on yourself for being "wrong" about Lake & Forest, Dan. You weren't the only one who failed to predict the Great Recession and the fact that banks wouldn't be lending to developers. I'm more puzzled by your claim that Anan has convinced folks who don't like change to support this development. Check out the comments on your paper's news article on this and you'll see the same old nay-sayers nay-saying.

Q from Oak Park  

Posted: January 30th, 2014 9:27 PM

Cont.... This project can be completed because there are enough people wanting to build on the property. The L train, the price of the property, and the ability to convince a village board wanting to buy the paints and canvas is the reason. Report back in your newspaper that this village board didn't offer taxpayers money or property. They asked each develper what do you have to offer us, the taxpayer.

Q from Oak Park  

Posted: January 30th, 2014 9:19 PM

Cont.... Why start another project when a simple speaker repair can't be down by your new favorite President. The project on Harlem and South boulevard will take place. Not because there is a different economy. Not because Obama is still President and hasn't closed Gitmo, which he continues to promise doing. Not because he has left Iraq, still with destruction every day, and not because he now plans to pulled out from Afghanistan, and it certainly isn't because of President Abu-Taleb. Cont....

Q from Oak Park  

Posted: January 30th, 2014 9:15 PM

Dan, the pancake house had very good pancakes, just expensive. The economy never had anything to do with the failed plans for Forest and Lake. There is nothing wrong with the parking garage, it just hasn't been maintained by the current President. Go over there and ask how long the speaker has been out of order and on the way to being repaired. When Cat's know over things, they don't go back to clean up. They just act like nothing happened. That parking garage needs attention. Cont....

Bill D  

Posted: January 30th, 2014 9:14 PM

It doesn't work that way, Suzette. One developer doesn't care what another developer is or isn't doing. And that parcel has sat underutilized for a decade. Kudos to the new board and village hall leadership for moving forward with this. That said, IMO, 19 stories is way too tall.

Suzette from Oak Park IL  

Posted: January 30th, 2014 8:51 PM

Don't we need to finish Plan A before we start Plan B ? Just asking.

Bill D  

Posted: January 29th, 2014 9:54 AM

John, there's a news article listing the developers. This project was far more viable than the Lake and Forest debacle, and failed due to the economic collapse. Though 14 stories is way higher than the original. It's crept up from six to eight and now will be between nine and 14 stories.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: January 29th, 2014 12:44 AM

Dan - either you are the most secretive person, most naive, or most forgetful person in OP.. How can you write "But are there are four credible developers with plans in hand" without giving the slightest clue of the names of the "Four Credibles", their plans, or the village leaker that ensured that the four developers are credible. Has the OP Press or the village ever met a developer that they did not consider credible? Have you completely forgotten that village developers have not produced any successful OP projects in the 21st Century? There is a very good reason why there are so many cynics in the village!

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