Thinking out loud on Lake Street

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Garret Eakin

Daniel Grove from the Lakota Group and I met on a brisk fall evening at Lake and Harlem in Oak Park. Grove was the landscape architect who was a part of the team that designed Marion Street. This walk down Lake was announced as a public event to expand the conversation regarding the potential renovation of our main street.

This interception at Harlem has historic and physical identity with the iconic Marshall Field's Building anchoring the corner. The historic architecture recalls the heyday of the street and marks the entrance to Oak Park and River Forest. Unfortunately, the village signage is weak and lost in the visual clutter. Perhaps the prominent crossing could be better marked with a strong appropriate gateway. Unfortunately, the series of Ginko trees are not doing well and are in dire need of replacement. Creating a more uniform alignment of trees would reinforce the sense of entry. We felt that the planters and flowers are important but they look like concrete bunkers, having little sense of human scale or elegance. Also, the lighting is unfortunate, with the mismatched cobra head utility lamps and more traditional lanterns without landscape lighting.

The walking surfaces are inconsistent, comprised of faded and broken precast pavers and concrete. The crosswalk at Chipotle is heavily used, yet it feels a bit dangerous. Daniel suggested that a speed table or bump could improve this crosswalk.

Across the street we have the enormous hole in our most important retail street used for a surface parking. Maybe we should give up on someone developing this village owned land and transform it into a beautiful urban garden as a transition to the parking and transit station to the south. This is a huge opportunity to create a destination of green, benches, flowers, water, food, etc., as the station is slated to be renovated to become more pedestrian friendly.

As we approached the prominent meeting point at Marion we both sensed arrival — the unofficial heart of Oak Park. Grove suggested that the crossing could use a more substantial marker to physically and visually call out the crossing. Maybe we could find a European model with landscaping, special paving patterns, a wonderful fountain, something that celebrates this important space. Possibly a symbolic and functional tourist kiosk could be integrated as a focal point at the interception that helps guide our guests to the local attractions.

As we approached the Lake Theater we found a strong sense of place created by the wonderful Art Deco building, its dramatic signage and welcoming canopy. Perhaps more of this kind of bold signage on the block could help make Lake Street more vibrant. Across the street, massive planters provide green and shade but deaden the energy of the theater. At Forest we have another opportunity as this is the gateway to the institutional, residential and the Wright District. To mark or embellish this crossing would be natural.

The new highrise apartment tower should make a strong statement if properly designed. Traversing the various religious and residential properties we find another important intersection at the beautiful stone post office. Grove points out the 17 lampposts and signage standards creating unneeded visual clutter. We wonder what might happen to this historic building if or when the mail system evolves. Across the street, Grove points out how unfortunate it is that a large tree spoils the best view or photograph of Unity Temple.

Passing the library, we see Scoville Park, which is being renovated, promising to be a beautiful enhanced asset to the community. The bluestone paving looks beautiful.

Finally, we arrive at Oak Park Avenue which is defined by a number of apartment and retail buildings leading to the Oak Park train stop. Perhaps some more thinking out loud will start to define a new image for our main street — it is wonderful and could use some work.

Garret Eakin is a practicing architect, preservation commissioner and adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute.

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