Agencies gear up for North Avenue planning

Grants to fund transportation, economic development studies for corridor in 2018

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

A portion of North Avenue, which divides Oak Park and the city of Chicago, is about to go under the microscope by planning and transportation organizations in an effort to revitalize the commercial corridor.

In 2015, the Illinois Department of Transportation awarded the Chicago Department of Transportation a $225,000 grant for various transportation improvements – the money got held up as a result of the state budget impasse but has since been disbursed with the goal of beginning the study in early 2018.

The most recent shot in the arm comes from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), which announced on Oct. 19 that it will be included in the organization's Local Technical Assistance program, which will work to develop a plan for the corridor to improve economic vitality, sustainability and livability.

Meanwhile, the village of Oak Park is set to release a study by public finance consultant Ehlers Inc. that explores potential economic development engines of establishing a tax increment finance (TIF) district, a business district or a special service area on North Avenue.

CMAP's involvement in the planning effort was made possible by The North Avenue District (T-NAD), a nonprofit community group that promotes revitalization of the business corridor from Harlem Avenue and Austin Boulevard.

Judith Alexander, chairwoman of T-NAD and founder of the North Avenue Neighbors Association, said in a telephone interview that T-NAD submitted the application for a CMAP Local Technical Assistance grant.

She said CMAP's inclusion is good news because the Chicago Department of Transportation study, which runs from Harlem to Central Avenue, focuses on transportation-related issues such as parking, traffic, walkability and accessibility.

"It's a good thing, because we also wanted a plan for land use and redevelopment, but the [Chicago] study doesn't cover that," she said.

Alexander said she particularly hopes CMAP planners address revitalization on the east end of the corridor near Austin Boulevard, which has more vacant and more poorly maintained buildings.

"One of our questions is, 'What's it going to take to turn that around?'" she said.

Since the corridor is split between two municipalities, both will play a role in the planning efforts.

Alexander said that Chicago 29th Ward Alderman Chris Taliaferro and Oak Park Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb both wrote letters of support in T-NAD's application for the CMAP grant.

Abu-Taleb said in his letter of support dated June 9, that Oak Park has set aside $50,000 to prepare a land-use and development plan for the Oak Park side of North Avenue. He noted that the village agrees with T-NAD that a land use development plan is needed for both sides of the corridor.

"We … have had preliminary conversations with the Chicago Department of Transportation regarding a joint planning process," Abu-Taleb wrote. "We believe that approximately $100,000 would be necessary for a project of this magnitude."

Alexander and her organizations have advocated for years for a comprehensive plan to revitalize North Avenue, which is described by a preliminary version of the Ehlers report as "declining for decades."

"There's been a proliferation of vacancies and negative uses, including currency exchanges, payday/title loan operations and pawn shops," the Ehlers report notes, adding that the district "qualifies as a blighted/conservation area based on aging/deteriorating/obsolete structures, parcel size/shape unsuitable for redevelopment and equalized assessed valuation trends."

It notes that office and retail space on North Avenue "exceeds demand" and traffic volume has "increased steadily, making the district less and less walkable/pedestrian-friendly."

The increased traffic pushes vehicles into adjacent neighborhoods, prompting the establishment of cul-de-sacs and diverters, according to the Ehlers report, "but these also make the district's restaurants and stores less accessible to residents and parking more difficult for its business."

The last plan for the corridor was completed in 1996 and "did not include land use or design recommendations …" according to the Ehlers report.

"Other than a streetscape project (one-third completed in 2007) and some planters, the district has seen no public investment in redevelopment," the Ehlers report notes.

The report states that "the situation is far from hopeless" and the district includes a number of successful businesses, restaurants and medical and related offices.

"The just-announced closing of the North/Harlem Sears and several other relatively large vacant parcels on the Chicago side represent redevelopment opportunities," according to the Ehlers report.

CONTACT: tim@oakpark.com

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Judith Alexander from Oak Park  

Posted: October 24th, 2017 5:45 PM

The North Avenue District and NABA were about to suggest that the Village of Oak Park use the North Ave. lot it owns (just west of PNC Bank) for employee permit parking. Then they issued a development RFP. But you're right, there are other lots that are not fully used by the business that own them and could be utilized. Jeff, have you approached Dr. Campos about renting a few of his spaces? As for the speeding and commuters using side streets, we realize this is a problem in Oak Park and Galewood as well. Part of the solution will probably be intelligent stoplights, whose timing adjusts depending on volume. The idea is that if you're travelling 30 mph, you'll only have to wait at one light between Austin and Harlem. We will ask the upcoming transportation study (separate from the redevelopment-land use study) to address this.

Jeff Schroeder from Oak Park   

Posted: October 21st, 2017 12:46 PM

Our firm is one of the few success stories on North Avenue. We have nearly tripled our staff over the past twenty years and have remained in Oak Park for fifty years without any village economic incentives. I think that is good for Oak Park, right? Now, we often exceed our own 20 car parking lot and have to use some street parking during the day. Our employees are 100% college educated professionals who drive nice cars and are very aware of speed limits and safety. I can understand having cul-de-sacs near busy cross streets like Oak Park Avenue, Harlem and Austin, but not all the way across town. Perhaps the village can use some of the current vacant lots to add more parking.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: October 21st, 2017 8:02 AM

"Residents in these neighborhoods have some cars going 40-45 mph down their streets (recorded on village data). " Is that data a count and speed measurement or is the data photographic? Cars doing 40-45 MPH could be ambulances and police cars, Oak Park as well as other from other jurisdictions. As an RBO I would get that statement all the time, speeding autos on my block at all hours. My next question was, did you see the cars at 3AM? If not, it is not at all hours, so lets work on the time frame together. Might have this wrong, SE Oak Park had this issue with a stop sign. Neighbors were upset that no motorists stopped at the sign. The chief said enough and placed a car to write every violation, zero tolerance. Most of the citations issued were from residents, and if the story I got was true, both the president of the SE Oak Park group and his wife, who complained were issued citations.Be careful what you wish for with citations. The police officer gets paid to go to traffic court, win or loose. Citizens pay to go to traffic court, win or loose

Kyle P. Eichenberger  

Posted: October 21st, 2017 7:21 AM

One of the most common problems residents have come to the Transportation Commission for during my 3 years on it has been the speeding and cut-thru traffic in the north part of Oak Park. Residents in these neighborhoods have some cars going 40-45 mph down their streets (recorded on village data), cars that block their driveways when they park for North Ave establishments, and many streets have gotten treatments so that a handful are left, unfairly, as the only thru street. Hopefully, any new redevelopment on North Ave recognizes the need to mitigate traffic problems for the neighborhood.

Phillip Risley from Oak Park   

Posted: October 21st, 2017 1:26 AM

Removing the cull de sacs and other barriers is not a reasonable solution. I live on the 1200 block of Marion on a dead end cul de sac. Many vehicles traveling on Harlem (mostly) and North attempt to avoid the Harlem & North intersection and come flying down the street and then back again. Three main points: (1) opening the cul de sacs would then cause heavy traffic flow and choke up these side streets (including commercial vehicles according to long time residents); (2) the owners in the street paid a portion of the cost to put in the cul de sac (at least on our block); and (3) it truly solves nothing in terms of congestion at this busy intersection and would be less pedestrian friendly, including those trying to patronize businesses in the area.

Ali Ohlhoff  

Posted: October 20th, 2017 8:40 PM

This is so, so needed. Thank you to those working on it!

Joyce Porter from Oak Park  

Posted: October 20th, 2017 7:58 PM

Thank you Judith and everyone else who has been working on this much needed idea. I'd love to see all the cul de sacs removed. I avoid North Ave many times because you can't turn off of it and the traffic backs up. Also, maybe the village could offer to buy some of the pawn shops and offer them to better tenants for a bargain.

Judith Alexander from Oak Park  

Posted: October 20th, 2017 5:43 PM

On behalf of The North Avenue District, thanks to Tim Inklebarger and The Wednesday Journal for their continued interest in and coverage of North Avenue.

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