After almost a decade of debating, exploring, consulting, deliberating and disagreeing, the "heart" of Downtown Oak Park may finally be taking shape.
Last month, the village announced a contest, looking for teams of developers, brokers and architects to create a plan for the Colt "superblock," a village-owned property just east of Pier 1 Imports that includes the Colt building, the adjacent 1121-1123 Lake St. building, a North Boulevard parking lot and 1145 Westgate.
The contest, called a "request for qualifications," ended last Wednesday, and the village has received seven proposals for what officials consider a "signature site" that could "redefine" downtown with a solid development plan.
"We actually have some competition going here, and that's what we were hoping for when this process was conceived," said Village Manager Tom Barwin.
The responses were much more promising than the request for proposals the village put out last year for just the Colt building. The two teams that responded wanted the building for free plus millions of dollars in subsidies from the village, which Barwin said wasn't feasible.
The superblock garnered more interest than the village's other RFQ for Madison and Highland, officials said, because of the traffic and desirable elements of the location.
"The center of the universe is Harlem and Lake as far as [developers] are concerned," said Bob Clements, acting director of development services in Oak Park.
The rough proposals, which mostly came from people who went on last month's development tour, included a wide range of possibilities from retail to residential, offices, apartments or condominiums, he said. A couple of proposals incorporated a hotel, and another already had a retailer attached to it.
All seven plans include some element of parking, as the village requested, and all seven call for demolition of the Colt building.
The village spent upwards of $550,000 in the recent past to have consultants determine if saving the Colt building were economically feasible. Built in the 1920s, only 20 percent of the Colt's original facade is intact and would cost millions to preserve it, the study said.
Former village trustee Robert Milstein, one proponent of preserving the Colt, said in a phone interview Monday he believes Oak Park would lose more than just a building if it is razed.
"I think we're losing the soul of our community," he said.
Adding condominiums or a hotel could clog downtown beyond belief, he said.
"We'll have, what I consider, a progressive nightmare," Milstein said. "There simply will be, based on how people transport themselves, a huge jam-up in that area."
"We should have some development, but we have to have rational, reasonable development and we have to think 10 or 15 years down the road," he said later.
Pat Zubak, executive director of Downtown Oak Park, is excited by the idea of adding new retail space to the downtown district, despite the fact that several retail spaces are currently empty, including four in the Colt building.
"A developer has the ability to tailor a new space instead of retrofitting to an old storefront," Zubak said of possible retail use at the Colt. "That's very attractive to a lot of retailers."
DTOP, in conjunction with the village, surveyed over 300 Oak Parkers on what they'd like to see downtown. Respondents asked for more restaurants, along with national and independent retailers. New retail space is needed to bring those business types to Oak Park, Zubak said.
The next step is a litmus test, with the village asking teams to flesh-out the details of their plans and prove they can actually make them a reality. Staff is reviewing the plans and will interview each team in the near future, Clements said.
In the next couple of weeks, the village board will whittle the field to three teams, with each receiving a $10,000 stipend to help flesh out their plan, which would include architectural drawings, renderings and financial details.
"It's envisioned to be a great location, and when you think about it, that's the heart of Oak Park," Clements said.