By Anna Lothson
Streetscaping has been both a buzz word and a topic of contention in Oak Park. The perks of adding some charm to the village have been mixed with criticism of high costs and debate over economic return.
Village officials have said the major redo of Marion Street in 2007 boasts a 5-1 return on its investment in terms of what was spent on the project and what the village has gained in private investment in return. But some trustees have debated if streetscaping can always bring similar outcomes.
In the past year Oak Park has faced the high costs of two streetscaping-related projects on the roughly $6 million Marion Street redo that came with bluestone speed bumps and heated sidewalks. Turns out, neither gave its bang for its buck.
Last winter Oak Park Public Works Director John Wielebnicki said the heated sidewalks were helpful, but because of the $25,000 annual electricity price tag, it was too expensive to expand to other areas of the village. This winter, however, a fix to another streetscaping element on Marion will add $200,000 to the capital improvement budget.
This budget item led Village Trustee Ray Johnson to share his frustration and question why the bluestone speed bump on Marion Street at Westgate is being removed after just six to seven years.
"I'm very confused, actually," Johnson said in a budget discussion meeting earlier this month, "Why are we replacing the Marion/Westgate speed tables after just a few years? It's a brand new street."
Village Engineer Jim Budrick jumped in with answers, but couldn't offer an explanation that eased Johnson's concerns.
"To be completely honest, bluestone and traffic do not mix," Budrick said. "So we're planning on taking the bluestone off and replacing it with brick pavers."
Because of the high pedestrian travel on the street, the speed bumps are used as a traffic-calming device. But the bluestone pavers cannot withstand the weight of auto traffic and will be replaced by brick. Budrick said the bluestone in the crosswalks will also be replaced with granite to withstand the number of cars that pass through.
"Our street department is out there almost weekly replacing the bluestone," Budrick said. "It's impossible to maintain it in the condition that it's in."
Johnson asked if the contractor or engineer who recommended the bluestone materials could be held financially liable for the "bad advice," but Budrick said the time that's passed makes that possibility unlikely. He said his department will discuss that option and determine if there is a chance to require the firms to pick up any of the tab.
"That's unfortunate," Johnson said after hearing the village will likely shell out for the new materials on its own. "We're going to get some significant feedback on that."
Oak Park's redo of Marion, however, has its supporters. After the 2007 completion of the street renovation, which consisted of granite cubs and an underground water-filtration system, the village won an urban design landscape award.
Marion Street has also been recognized by several other groups — including the Congress for the New Urbanism, the Brick Industry Association and the Illinois chapter of the American Planning Association.
Still, as the village board has spent significant time in recent budget and economic development discussions debating the merits of streetscaping as a mode of economic development, its likely designs like bluestone speed bumps, walkways and heated sidewalks may be a thing of the past for Oak Park.