By Ben Meyerson
The Park District of Oak Park nixed plans for a new gymnastics center last night, dropping out of negotiations with developers of a proposed office building on Madison Street to relocate the center into the planned project.
The park district was hoping to expand from its currently cramped gymnastics facility, which is smashed into one building with the park district's administration center and its building and grounds garage.
A new office building at Madison Street and Highland Avenue planned by local entrepreneur Mary Jo Schuler seemed to be a good location: a custom buildout just across the street from the current gymnastics center, as well as the park district's headquarters.
But Gary Balling, park district executive director, said the park board decided Thursday night to end negotiations with the Madison Highlands group, three months after they entered serious discussions in September.
"We thank them for giving us consideration, but in the end, the fit wasn't there in terms of the space we need," Balling said. "We met with them on several occasions and gave their proposals consideration, but in the end they weren't going to meet the needs of a gymnastics center."
Though the park district is pulling out of discussions with Madison Highlands, it is still hoping to expand both the gymnastics center and building and grounds, each of which share about half of the park district's headquarters building at 218 Madison St. in Oak Park.
Each has about half of the space it needs, the park district believes.
Moving one into a new space would allow the other to expand appropriately. The park district currently has about $5.2 million budgeted for renovation and relocation between building and grounds and gymnastics, which Balling said can be divvied up as the situation demands.
"We've been looking at this gymnastics expansion since 2006, so you know it's a priority," Balling said. "Certainly, we'd like to see it happen within the next six months to a year, but the space needs to be right and the dollars need to fit within our capital improvement budget."
But Madison Highlands' architect, Nevin Hedlund, said he had gotten the impression as recently as this week that negotiations with the park district were going well, and that a Friday morning e-mail from Balling came as somewhat of a surprise.
"We're looking for a consistent voice from the park district. We're obviously still entertaining them since we've invested a lot of time, energy and money, in the idea," said Hedlund, who's also a member of the project's development team. "But if it does come to pass, the thing that was really holding us up from pulling the trigger on the project was commitment from the park district. We've been waiting for them to work through their own issues."
Though the park district was slated to be the project's anchor tenant, their departure won't hurt the development, said Mas Takiguchi, another member of the Madison Highlands team.
"We have sheltered, we put a bubble over space we thought would be used by the park district, and we did that at a cost," Takiguchi said. "There's money out there for commercial projects, and my reading is that there's a need for office space of the kind we currently have. We believe that the project can proceed and succeed. It's not going to be a fall-down no brainer, but it can happen."
Takiguchi said the Madison Highlands team was planning to pitch a new plan to the park district that could potentially provide the park district with new savings on the project, by knocking the park district's price for a space down to $3 million. However, he also hadn't heard from Balling that the board had decided to back out of the project.
Balling said he hadn't heard anything about that, and reiterated that the park district was shutting down discussions.
"We haven't heard anything like that. That's a surprise to me," Balling said. "I don't believe negotiations can ever be unequivocally shut down, but the intent is not to continue on."