Go south of the train tracks, and you may be surprised at what you find.
A small business area just south of downtown Oak Park has been blossoming over the past few years, ignoring the falling sky around it. The corner of South Marion and South Boulevard has seen new or improved businesses sprout up around it — such as a bicycle rental shop, vastly expanded cheese market, and a reinvented restaurant near Marion and Pleasant.
Those new or envisioned ventures join long-established businesses in the area such as Poor Phil's Bar & Grill and the Carleton Hotel.
But the streets and streetscaping are getting worn, having not been repaved since the mid or early 1990s. A water main currently running under South Boulevard hasn't been replaced since the 1800s. So, Oak Park is looking at gussying up the roadways and sidewalks outside, possibly as early as next year, to match the fancy businesses inside the doorways on South Marion.
"I think, yeah, we deserve a little attention," said Dennis Murphy, an Oak Park resident who, with his wife Bunny, has owned Poor Phil's since it opened in 1975. "I don't know if I want it as elaborate as the Disneyfication of what they did on North Marion, but it would be nice to have some lighting and landscaping."
Back in 2007, Oak Park invested $6.12 million to rip up a pedestrian mall on the 100 block of North Marion, just north of its less-appreciated brother on South Marion. The street was refitted with bluestone sidewalks that melt snow, brick streets and a fountain. Village officials say the project is working, as empty storefronts have quickly filled up, and millions of dollars are being invested in properties on or near the block.
"Marion Street has become the place to locate in the western suburbs," said Village President David Pope.
Oak Park is looking at fast tracking a similar redo on South Marion from South Boulevard to Pleasant. Such a project would cost about $2.2 million to execute, but the village is hoping to line up federal dollars to help make the remodeling a reality.
About $200,000 is already being budgeted for next year to start working up designs and cost estimates for the project, and Oak Park expects to hear sometime in early 2011 whether they'll grab those federal dollars.
Robert Loro — owner of the 28-year-old Loro Auto Works on South Boulevard, and president of the South Marion business district — says he could get onboard with the street improvements, though he questions if they'll really bolster business.
"I'm always for things looking better," he said. "We pay a lot of taxes, and I would think that we should have a presentable business district."
Bringing a similar design to South Marion would help unify the area with the rest of downtown Oak Park, Loro said, something that the village has long strived for.
Mary Jo Schuler — an Oak Park resident, co-owner of the Marion Street Cheese Market, and owner of Greenline Wheels across the street — thinks that a beautified street could help make South Marion even more attractive to developers. The Village of Oak Park currently owns a parking lot at South Boulevard at Harlem, which was planned to be a retail and condo development, before the economy crashed.
Murphy of Poor Phil's understands the idea of uniting South Marion with the rest of downtown Oak Park, but he doesn't want to make everything look exactly the same.
"It's hard to get people under that viaduct and it'd be nice, but I wouldn't want to lose our identity," he said.
The board will decide in the coming weeks whether it wants to keep the $200,000 in next year's budget to start planning for the road improvements. Trustee Jon Hale isn't convinced that investing $2.2 million in streets and sidewalks is the best way to spur business.
Oak Park already put a large chunk of change toward redecorating the business area near Chicago Avenue and Austin, which he believes hasn't produced results. Hale would rather see money put toward recruiting or retaining businesses.
"I think we need to be cautious before we say, 'Let's make a beautiful, really, really expensive streetscape throughout the downtown area,'" Hale said.