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By Anna Lothson
The Oak Park Village Board, the plan commission and village staff all agreed the Oak Leaf Academy was a great fit for Oak Park. The debate at last week's board meeting, however, boiled down to where that daycare center should go.
Last fall, the daycare applicants — Oak Park resident JoAnn Gantar and River Forest resident Melissa Lumkes — received village board approval to operate in the 100 block of South Oak Park Avenue, but the building never became available. So, the duo was back to square one looking for a new location, when they were put in touch with the Oak Park Development Corporation.
After reviewing all available properties, Gantar settled on the space at 206-208 S. Marion St., where Suzanne Cahill, owner of Maison Suzanne retail furniture and antiques store, was looking to sublet.
A special use application was needed due to the nature of the business. But when village staff received the request, they informed Gantar and Lumkes that a daycare center was not suited for the space and, therefore, would likely not receive their approval. However, with the backing of the property owner Mike Fox and Oak Park Development Corporation, the applicants moved forward to make their case.
A year later, on Monday, Nov. 5 at a meeting of the village board, trustees denied the special use application by a 4 to 2 vote.
Village Board President David Pope, who spoke highly about the qualifications and presentation of the applicants, said he couldn't support the daycare center moving into that specific space. He hoped they would look elsewhere in the village to find a more suitable spot, equipped with better access to safe pick-up and drop-off areas.
"The business plan is certainly one that is well thought out and would be a valuable contribution to the community," Pope said in a follow-up interview Friday. "It would be a great thing if we could have them in the community in an appropriate and safe location."
Pope said he, along with village staff, didn't believe the five parking spots at the Marion Street location were enough, particularly because of the volume of cars at specific points of the day.
"Some places in community are no-parking zones designed specifically to cater to daycares for pick up and drop off," Pope said. "That doesn't exist in this area, in large part, because it's a commercial district where the parking is intended to be used by folks patronizing the commercial district."
Although the board voted unanimously in June to not designate South Marion as a retail overlay district, Pope said the board may have the chance to re-address the retail zone issue once the economy improves.
Cahill, who is looking to move out of her location within the month, said she is upset with the lack of understanding for local business owners on South Marion Street.
"This [space] is really suited for a service business," Cahill said.
She thinks the high rent will keep most retailers out and will result in her 4,000-square-foot space being left empty.
"I would like to know what type of retail could survive here," she said. "I really think it's politics — saving face because [the village] put all that money into it."
That 7 to 0 vote not to force a retail zone on the street was the main reason Trustee Adam Salzman was upset his colleagues shut down the daycare proposal.
"There was no reason for us to deny it given that we didn't zone it retail," Salzman said. "Now where does that leave us? Do we have some sort of retail requirements? If we are going to have those kinds of policies, they need to be explicit policies. That really bothers me."
Salzman worried about the board sending inconsistent messages and giving the impression of not being small business-friendly. He said the applicants acted on the policy that was set by the board.
Trustee Bob Tucker, who voted in favor of the daycare center, said he'd prefer retail in the area, and said he respected the plan commission process (7-0 in favor of the use) and thinks there are many benefits of a daycare center like Oak Leaf Academy.
"Early childhood development has long-term ramifications on children in this village," Tucker said. "You're adding people, you're adding parents, you're adding kids on that street. … There seems to be a lot of advantages."
As one trustee who voted against the daycare use, Trustee Ray Johnson said the issue was not about the use, but the location, particularly one he though lacked proper pick-up and drop-off space.
"There should be little impact to neighboring uses," he wrote in an email Monday. "The evidence presented was not compelling in regards to limited neighborhood impacts, (especially during the evening weekday rush hour)."