No consensus from trustees yet on downtown superblock plan

Time is running short on Colt building decision

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By DREW CARTER

The village board spent most of a 5 1/2-hour meeting last week questioning the conclusions reached by the Downtown Sub-Area Plan Steering Committee, and less time clarifying the committee's positions on opening Marion Street and saving the Colt Building or building a new street in its place.

Trustees questioned assumptions of consultants the committee hired to inform its review of the sub-area "superblock" and what to do about the Colt. The village has a "put-call" purchase agreement that expires at the end of the month with Focus Development and Taxman Corp., which together own the building, that forces the village to either allow Focus/Taxman to develop the parcel or purchase it from them.

The board invited people who had given presentations on the superblock to the committee to reprise shortened versions of their presentations at the meeting last Thursday night.

"I don't think anyone thought [our recommendations] would just be stamped and approved," Bob Tucker, committee chair, said after the board meeting.

But some frustration among committee members resulted from the repetition, the board's interpretations of the committee's recommendations, and the process it used to reach its conclusions.

Tucker said he was a "little disheartened" to hear that there was a sense among the board that the committee did not return a "vision" for the superblock, and that the committee's consensus process produced something less than ideal.

In the meeting, Trustee Elizabeth Brady said the board was at fault for not directing the committee to choose between preset visions rather than recommending "how you can smush them all together."

After the meeting, Trustee Geoff Baker said he agreed with Brady?#34;that what was returned didn't show an extraordinary vision of how redevelopment would recreate Oak Park in its unique mold.

"It's commonplace stuff" in the committee's plan, Baker said. "It's a vision. I don't think it's necessarily an extraordinary reach of a vision.

"What's the soul of Oak Park?" Baker added. "How do we create a sense of place that's unique in all of Chicagoland?"

For a higher, greater vision, Brady said, "I don't think you can do that through a consensus process."

"It's not a Frankenstein plan," Tucker said, explaining that the plan was approached as a whole, not a series of individually decided parts.

In an e-mail letter to trustees, Steven Ginsberg, chair of the Parking & Traffic Commission and member of the committee, echoed that sentiment.

"The word 'compromise' itself, in the context discussed, seemed to suggest that we 'settled,' 'smushed' or generally horsetraded between ourselves to achieve a plan no one really wants; that the consensus plan, any consensus plan, somehow must fall short of the ideal for DTOP."

What to do with Colt?

Ginsberg said the "'compromise' angle" stemmed from a comment committee member and Historic Preservation Commission Chair Doug Gilbert made when asked a hypothetical question.

"If money were no object, I see no reason why you wouldn't" save the Colt building, Gilbert said.

Some members of the board differed from the committee on the question of how the village would pay for infrastructure improvements and renovations of historic buildings in the superblock. Focus/Taxman argued, and much of the data produced by the village consultants supported, the idea that restoring the Colt building would be too costly and would represent a lost opportunity for greater tax proceeds through redevelopment.

Ginsberg said the economic conversation about Colt, while important, was "not the sole factor, and in my mind (and I believe at least several [members] of the Committee), not the driving factor" behind the recommendation to demolish the Colt building.

"For me, our plan would fail if it did not result in a retail revival within Marion, Westgate and along Lake Street," Ginsberg wrote. To do that, the areas need to get enhanced visibility from car traffic, and parking is needed. "Without such traffic flow and parking, there will not be enough support for either reconstructed or new-build retail in this area. We will have a historic area which functions as a museum, and not a downtown."

Opposition to destroying the Colt has remained strong throughout the process, as have questions of the assumptions used to suggest that adding a new street in favor of knocking down the Colt would benefit taxpayers.

An admittedly nervous Trustee Martha Brock asked the village clerk to read a couple of documents into the record before she asked questions about them, directed at Gilbert. Sandra Sokol, village clerk, read conditions 5-8 from the village's resolution authorizing the adoption of the Crandall Arambula-led Greater Downtown Master Plan.

The No. 5 condition requires the board to meet with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, which had a representative sitting on the superblock committee.

Gilbert said he made sure preservation concerns were addressed by the committee, and that the consensus of the committee was that historic preservation was a top priority. In fact, the issue tops the committee's list of recommendations to the village board, being one of four major topics it addresses. The others are Westgate, the Colt building, and Marion Street.

Ilhan Avcioglu, chair of the village's Environmental & Energy Advisory Commission and a committee member, voted against the committee's recommendations because he felt the Colt should be preserved, that a new street connecting Lake to North Boulevard was unnecessary, and the final plan didn't reflect much of the input received from citizens participating in the planning process.

Avcioglu told the board he didn't think the proposed parking structure?#34;a 500-600-car garage, about the size of the Avenue's garage?#34;needed to be so big, and that shoppers should be encouraged to walk and bike to their destinations.

Mike Iverson, an architect and professor at UIC, in written documents, questioned the assumptions and conclusions of the consultants studying the economic effects of keeping or destroying the Colt building.

Iverson's figures adjust projected losses from a historic renovation of the Colt downward from $2.4 million to $387,000, and profits on a redevelopment project from $3.4 million to a loss of $597,000.

Opponents also argue that economics aren't the central issue with Colt, and that non-economic issues need consideration, too.

Time running out

With a seemingly crowded agenda for its next meeting, Oct. 27, and an Oct. 31 deadline on the Colt put-call decision, some wondered whether the decision might be rushed.

"This is not an issue of how fast you can do it," said Trustee Robert Milstein. "We're not here to make a decision like going through a McDonald's drive-thru."

But Trustee Ray Johnson said the process has gone on a year and a half, "so we're certainly not rushing." Pope said questions needed to be posed as soon as possible.

"I want to bring this down to brass tacks, and I want to nail it down now."

Tim Hague, president of Taxman Corp., after the meeting said, "We do think it's time to conclude that process," adding that the developers feel enough time has been offered to hear input.

Hague described the decision, which could come at the end of Thursday's meeting, as a "checkpoint." The companies want to hear what direction the board will take, then decide whether it wants to be a part of that direction. If they choose not to, the village will have to purchase the Colt building.

The put-call deadline shouldn't be misconstrued as a rush to finalize a plan or start building, Hague said. "We don't necessarily see that as a quick process."

CONTACT: dcarter@wjinc.com

The resolution authorizing the adoption of the Crandall Arambula-led Greater Downtown Master Plan carried eight conditions, including (No. 8) that a three-dimensional model of downtown be created.

The village board approved a contract for $50,000 to build physical and computer-based models of Downtown Oak Park at its Oct. 17 meeting. Solomon Cordwell and Buenz's response to the village's Request for Proposals was preferred to the only other response?#34;from Oak Park independent model builder and miniaturist Glenn Braun, whose bid at $2,400 was for just the physical model.

The comparison between the two could not be made because they were too different, and the village ultimately found it was getting a good deal with Solomon Cordwell and Buenz after calling architectural firms for going rates, village documents state.

The firm is expected to deliver the models in about 10 weeks, which would be just after the new year.

?#34;Drew Carter

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