Residential townhome development should be encouraged in east Oak Park


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J. Roy Burton, One View

I would like to comment about the statement made by the Plan Commission member, Penny Wallingford, that there should be a moratorium on townhouses because now the village "has enough of them" [Do townhouses really benefit village? How could you tell?, News, Sept. 21].

I moved to Oak Park in 1965 for two years before moving to the Austin neighborhood of Chicago where rents were 25 percent cheaper. We moved to a 7-flat building with all natural oak woodwork and had a 2-bedroom apartment with a yard for $135. After the first two children were born, we bought in Oak Park for more room and for the schools.

In our last year in the Chicago apartment, the building went from all white in May to all black in September. Every white family had had an instance of apartment burglary or a mugging on the street near the apartment. Block by block racial change was expected to continue to the edge of Chicago and on into Oak Park. At the time, a move to Oak Park was considered risky because prominent people in the media and even members of the Oak Park Police Department had forecast that the entire area from Madison to Roosevelt between Austin and Harlem would become an all-black slum by 1980.

We moved less than two miles from the Austin mess because of our confidence that the Oak Park community would hold together and integrate in an orderly fashion and continue to provide a suitable family community. This proved to be the case, due in part to enlightened Oak Park policies, such as the racial diversity laws and the Oak Park Housing Center. I have since moved again, to the east side of Ridgeland, in 1986. At the time, my house was considered by some to be too close to Austin and too far south to be safe. I have also purchased a laundromat and apartment building in this same area between Ridgeland and Austin. My business is the second oldest laundromat in Cook County, was recently remodeled, is the largest laundromat in Oak Park, and is (I think) the finest. Does anyone know where it is? Does Penny Wallingford know? I doubt it, since most people don't know it's there. This area of town has been abandoned to black-oriented businesses, except on Harrison Street.

In my early years back in Oak Park, I recall four developments in the area between Ridgeland and Austin. The first was village hall, which was built there in an area of deteriorating housing to give a boost to the east end of the village. This was obviously a great move. The townhouses at the northeast corner of Division and Austin were developed by the village on the site (I believe) of two vacant gas stations. The architect was chosen after competitive design proposals were solicited from a number of people. The development is now an anchor for that area of the village. The third boost was the now-senior citizens building near the corner of South Boulevard and Austin. This building was redesigned to face West and completed converted from a studio apartment building. The senior citizens high-rise at Lombard and Lake was added some time ago and there has been some commercial construction in the area, but basically all of the activity was pushed by the village?#34;until several years ago, when private interests proposed townhouses at the corner of Ridgeland and South Boulevard, and again at Cuyler and South Boulevard.

These two developments were the first eastward move of development in Oak Park back towards the Austin neighborhood. The townhouses on Cuyler are up and beautiful. The townhouses at Ridgeland were scrapped in favor of a high-rise with 50 some condominiums and a convenience store, but it is a significant improvement over the motor, repair shop, resale shop, and bankrupt boutique which were on the Ridgeland site, even though the density of the neighborhood has been increased considerably, and my lawn is littered with potato chip bags.

In the last two years three townhouse developments have been or are being constructed on Chicago Avenue, east of Ridgeland. People more and more are wanting to live there. One third of the village's land area and a third of its people live east of Ridgeland.

No one wants to see stately historic homes torn down to put up condominiums and townhomes. However, a village-sponsored study recommends that the sagging commercial zone on Chicago Avenue east of Ridgeland be repopulated with new townhouses and condominiums. If private developers want to take this risk, do the job, and make some money, let them do so. The Plan Commission should strongly support this development, not dismiss it out of hand.

I do not understand a giveaway of $8 million taxpayer dollars to improve the property values in River Forest by funding the Whiteco project on Harlem. Imagine the good that that money could do in expanding the rich Oak Park atmosphere all the way to Austin Boulevard by rebuilding the Chicago, Lake, and Madison corners, at Austin Boulevard, with strong family residential construction to replace what is basically an impoverished commercial area catering to the needs of the Austin neighborhood.

Editor's note: Ms. Wallingford sent a clarification, published in the Oct. 5 Viewpoints, explaining that she had been only partially quoted, and was not calling for a townhome moratorium. She was saying enough had been built so the Plan Commission could draw conclusions about housing trends.

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