By Anna Lothson
A two-year process that involved a multi-sided debate between business owners, Oak Park village staff and the Plan Commission fizzled Monday night when the once-approved plans for the a new daycare center on South Marion Street were shut down by the village board.
As a result, the hopeful daycare owners, who left Monday's meeting in tears, are giving up on their goal of settling in Oak Park and looking elsewhere.
The recently upgraded South Marion Street has been at the heart of many back-and-forth discussions about the role of a retail overlay district in the area to spark business growth, but in June the village board voted the retail only requirement down. The issue of implementing the retail restriction, which initially had a 3-3 split vote, was eventually unanimously voted down. The consensus from trustees and business owners was that the economic market isn't ready for the restriction even though the village had just spent millions on streetscaping upgrades.
In October 2011, Oak Leaf Academy, a daycare center for children age six weeks to 6 years, received approval to operate on the 100 block of South Oak Park Avenue, but a lease was never signed. Roughly a year later in September of this year Oak Park resident JoAnn Gantar and River Forest resident Melissa Lumkes filed an application to move into 206-208 S. Marion St. instead. The current occupant of that space, Maison Suzanne, a retail furniture and antiques store, is looking to sublet the space. The daycare plans indicated the center was designed to enroll up to 67 children at a time, and would have 10-12 employees to run the center.
The issue of allowing a daycare to move in brought out three people speaking in favor of the applicants Monday night, each citing a number of positive educational opportunities the center would create in Oak Park that aren't offered elsewhere in the area. A number of parents in the community spoke at past meetings in support, along with residents who wrote to the board. The one person who spoke against the application Monday night was a local leasing agent in the area who suggested the street is not designed for such a use.
Village staff's recommendation clashed with the plan commission's 7-0 vote in favor of the special use permit for the daycare. Village Planner Craig Failor said his perspective was purely from a design standpoint, saying the plan doesn't fit the use of the area and Oak Park's future vision for more retail in the area. Business Service Manager Loretta Daly also said staff views the area, despite not having the retail overlay, as still being a retail focused area. The center likely would not produce the same number of people a retail store or restaurant would, and therefore she suggested the daycare should look at another area in Oak Park.
Lumkes and Gantar explained to the board they had met with the Oak Park Development Corporation, which supported the applicants, but none of the available locations met their needs. The proximity to public transportation, Mills Park and local shops and restaurants were major perks for the daycare, the applicants said. They also explained that a daycare has strict requirements about space, number of exits and windows, which the Marion Street location fit. Going elsewhere in the village would require massive renovations and money they did not have.
Following about an hour of comments, questions and testimony from each side, village staff, the plan commission trustees and the applicants, the issue was eventually voted down 4-2, with Trustees Bob Tucker and Adam Salzman casting the dissenting votes in favor of the day care center.
Mike Fox, who owns both the Maison Suzanne building and the nearby Carleton Hotel, has been an advocate for the daycare center. He said during the retail-only discussion about South Marion that the street doesn't get the same foot traffic as other districts, and he suggested the village should let the market play itself out. Marion Street has continually been brought up in retail discussions because of the $5 million beautification project for the street that was done with the hopes of attracting more retailers.
The decision left Lumkes and Gantar upset. They left the meeting directly after the vote. In a phone interview Tuesday morning, Lumkes said they have no choice but to pack up their Oak Park plans and start looking at alternative locations, potentially in the West Loop of Chicago. Lumkes, who said her family has been in Oak Park since 1905, is also questioning whether she wants to stay in the community.
"I've been a long-time supporter," she said. "I don't feel as strongly as I once did. I don't know if this is the place I want to continue my future. [The board] made it clear a vacant storefront is more important than a preschool that would have become an asset to the community. … We're definitely looking elsewhere. We cannot go through this process again."