Project closing in a rush

Construction is in overdrive to hit Nov. 20 target

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By DEB QUANTOCK McCAREY

Before Thanksgiving and in time for the kick-off of the holiday shopping season, the much-anticipated reopening of Marion Street will officially bid adieu to the enclosed pedestrian mall and extend a hearty handshake to a new and improved historic main street. At 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 20, the street will open with a ribbon cutting, a high tech lighting ceremony and a parade of vintage cars. Adding to the festivities will be gifts and samples to attendees from individual merchants.

Converting the 1970s dark and desolate pedestrian mall into a thriving shopper-friendly, two-way street has been an intensive three-year undertaking which has incorporated negotiations and conversations between the private and public sectors, as well as the community at large. Their visions and collaborations have resulted in lane modifications and infrastructure improvements to water and sewer systems, including an ability to recapture and filter storm water for irrigating the numerous plantings. Moreover, an under-surface heating system to melt snow and ice from the sidewalks has been installed. Visually appealing landscaping, new street furniture, and the use of granite curbs, blue stone sidewalks and brick pavers for the street strategically evokes a sense of history while ensuring the street's future durability. Additionally, enhancing the design are walkways that spread up to18 feet wide, a black granite water fountain near the convergence of Marion and Westgate, a distinctive center archway and "antique"globe street lights.

"We are hopeful of coming in at or under budget, which will be about $6 million," says Tom Barwin, Oak Park's village manager. "We think Marion Street can be the centerpiece for economic renewal and regeneration, so we simply went back into the museum to look at how the street used to be and function when it was wildly successful and recreate what was there, with some enhancements. I'm quite confident that we will see the private sector investment quadruple over what we've spent on the public side within five years, and this $6 million is going to generate at least $25 million in nearby investments that will enhance the tax base and create jobs when those new developments are in place."

Pat Zubak, executive director of Downtown Oak Park, says that while the construction phase has been tough for the business community, several new businesses have moved in since April including Takara Uncommon Fashions, which is thriving, Moveable Gourmet, and two businesses which have been totally made-over, Vestio and Bottega M (formerly Spaulding's for Men and Women).

"Ten Thousand Villages moved in Sept. 7 and they have had a very strong September, despite the construction," says Zubak, "and Marion Street Cheese Market continues to do very well."

Erik Ruminski, chef/co-owner of the Moveable Gourmet opened eight days before the construction started and he and his partner Carol Buckantz are planning to stage a second grand opening in the last week of November. Meanwhile, Tim Eggert of The Competitive Foot says that after doing business for 33 years at the intersection of Marion and North Boulevard, his sales have been fairly steady, but change will be good. The infrastructure was crumbling and additional foot and car traffic will be helpful for everyone.

"We'll also have some new parking, which will help, and a freshness that we need to compete with the other suburbs in the western area,' he says.

A community process

The dialogue to reopen Marion Street began with the recommendation of the Greater Downtown Master Planning process, the Super Block Committee, and the Lakota Group consultants. The village board, in various incarnations, directed the varied steps. The design team responsible for the actual plan for the street included representatives from village government, various village commissions, the business community, and the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest.

"It was an amazing community process, and everyone involved deserves accolades for the time they put into it," says Loretta Daly, the village's business services manager. "I see Marion Street as the first in many steps to revitalizing our business district and in ensuring long-term health to Downtown Oak Park. This is the genesis, as I see it. There is a good potential of there being major development just to the west, and we anticipate that what we did here will just begin to lay the palette for other areas in town."

What's more, the upending of Marion Street began in April 2007, and its dust is settling on schedule six months later, which Daly says is quite an accomplishment in itself.

"If you go and look at what is being done now, you will see a significant commitment to high quality materials, design integrity and a space that will make residents, shoppers and individuals throughout the community and other communities comfortable and feel that they want to be there," says David Pope, Oak Park village president. "There are four reasons why people come to or stay in Oak Park. It is our proximity and easy access to downtown Chicago, our high quality schools and the rich character and diversity of our community, including our openness to people of all backgrounds. If you look on a national level, particularly in a down real estate market, there are two factors that keep a city viable. They are strong schools and a strong and vibrant retail area. Our objective was to create the highest quality downtown space in Illinois, and I think we are well on our way to achieving that."

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