After years of delays, false starts and political wrangling, the Oak Park village board tonight gets a fresh crack at redeveloping the village-owned Colt superblock on Lake Street.
The village board will review five proposals for the expansive site which stretches from Lake Street across Westgate and to North Boulevard. The proposals, part of a design competition sparked by the village, variously include retail, hotel, office, residential and parking uses. The Colt building, which will be demolished to make way for the new project, sits just east of Pier 1 Imports and, significantly, a bit west of the newly reopened Marion Street.
The village issued a request for qualifications seeking development teams interested in the parcels last September, and it received seven responses last month. Two of the responses were eliminated by village staff because of the thin amount of materials and experience provided in those proposals, said Village Manager Tom Barwin. Now the board has the task of whittling the field down to three finalists, which will each receive a $10,000 stipend to create a more detailed plan by early next year.
At a meeting tonight, the remaining five teams will have about 45 minutes to present their qualifications and initial concept. The board then has until Dec. 6 to mull the proposals and decide on the finalists.
After spending years dealing with the Colt and its controversies, Trustee Greg Marsey said the two most important factors, to him, in selecting a finalist are incorporating an anchor-type retailer that draws people to the area and a team that has a strong financial plan, and does not rely on village subsidies.
"Since this is the most desirable piece of property in town, it's my understanding that we won't have to make any contribution to the project," Marsey said.
Trustee Ray Johnson, who is "painfully" familiar with the site's history, said in a time of economic uncertainty, it's important to him that any winning team shows the financial and technical ability to take the project from point A to Z.
He also wants to see a significant architectural statement on the site, along with creative ways to strengthen the sales tax base in any commercial use on the site.
Barwin said it appears each team has real world experience in comparable settings to Oak Park
"Collectively, they represent major retail interests, housing experience, both condo and apartment and office experience," Barwin said. "It appears from cursory review that some of the semi-finalists have very sound, solid financial backing."
He could not release specifics on the proposals before Wednesday, but said the plans incorporate outstanding architecture, LEED certification for sustainability and a feasible financial plan, as requested by the village.
He believes this competition will succeed in producing a plan for the superblock where a previous request for proposals for the Colt failed. This time, it doesn't give the option of saving the building, which wasn't financially realistic, costing millions of dollars.
This "Westgate Project Competition" also incorporates much more land, and thus allows for more creativity and is more attractive to developers. The openness and interactivity with the village are also plusses, Barwin said.
The village would like to see a top-notch project on the space, which is located quite near the new Marion Street. The hope is that the two will complement each other and help assure the economic revival and long-term viability of Downtown Oak Park.
"Despite the soft economy, these are the kind of areas that I think are going to be coming back first and strongest," Barwin said. "If I'm an investor looking ahead to the future, I have trouble finding a better location or investment opportunity, and that's from any perspective: retail, residential, or office."
"There are some very exciting proposals, some that meet long term desires of the community," Johnson said, with trustees having two weeks to look at the materials. "There's a great mix of retail, office and hotel opportunities in the various proposals.
"It'll be very important that we all keep an open mind in this process and not predetermine what's best for the community. We need citizen and community input because this is a decision that will have an incredible impact on the community."