Save Colt? Go with Taxman? Maybe neither


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In my Aug. 31 column on downtown development, I wrote, "The Colt building should be saved if the open air atrium can be restored and if the old art deco facade is mostly intact beneath the Dryvit that currently affronts the Lake Street frontage."

At the time, I didn't anticipate the heated dispute that would ensue over the Colt building or I would have added "and if it's not too expensive to pull all this off (literally and figuratively)."

Listening to the intense back-and-forth about the future of the downtown superblock, I find myself disagreeing with both sides?#34;and agreeing with both sides.

I agree with the emphasis on historic preservation. But the Colt building is probably not the best place to fight that battle. To return the Colt to its open-air, pre-1950 look would most likely cost far too much. And it wouldn't result in preservation. Slathering Dryvit all over the facade, I'm told, pretty much ruins whatever you slather it on, which means at best you'd end up with historic recreation, not preservation. That's a very different process. Spending big bucks just to create a new version of the old Colt isn't worth the expense. I'd rather give up the Colt and focus on preserving Westgate.

That doesn't necessarily mean the Taxman plan is the way to go. I find those proponents far too jittery and nervous. I understand wanting to move this long-delayed process forward, but this seems like the same jittery nervousness that got us into the Whiteco mess. Yes, Taxman is a known entity with a proven track record. That's a good thing and not to be discounted. But that track record thus far consists of reasonably successful developments featuring unexciting architecture that hovers just above mediocrity. The most interesting building architect Joe Antunovich has given us thus far is the new Tasty Dog, and that's not going to be added to the architecture tour anytime soon. I'm not asking for masterpieces, but I'd like a downtown that isn't a boring, glorified strip mall, and I haven't seen anything in the Taxman developments to date that indicates they're capable of anything more.

The only business they've attracted to the area that has truly improved our quality of life is Whole Foods Market, and that's in River Forest.

So it makes sense to me to open this process up to competition. It also makes sense, if the board has a notion of saving the Colt, to get some firm bids on what it would really cost. And if it costs too much, drop the idea and move forward?#34;with some speed.

At the moment, Taxman Corp. has the leverage because if they don't get to develop the area the way they want, the village has to buy the Colt for $5 million. If we don't want to buy it, we pretty much have to go along with Taxman's plan.

Maybe the only way to neutralize that leverage is to put-call Taxman's bluff and buy the building. Yes, it's a lot of money?#34;too much?#34;but this board didn't get us into the predicament. And it doesn't rule out Taxman's plan altogether. It just forces them to be competitive. It allows the board to issue an RFP and find out what other interest and ideas are out there. Maybe they could specify "imaginative" in the RFP. While they're at it, how about: no architectural mediocrity; a demonstrable sense of history; Westgate must be preserved; an art deco building with an open-air atrium, perhaps glass-enclosed overhead, would be nice, but not absolutely necessary; and including a home for the Historical Society with adequate space for exhibit display will give you a distinct competitive edge.

In the meantime, it would probably be good if cooler heads on both sides prevailed.

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