Big changes to a small courtyard

Redo makes a world of difference

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By Lacey Sikora

One perk of living in a vintage apartment building is that older buildings were often built around courtyards. In dense communities, a bit of outdoor space offers a reprieve from asphalt streets, concrete sidewalks and rectilinear brick. 

Two buildings in downtown Oak Park recently received an update to their shared outdoor space, and while the square footage might be small, the impact on the lives of residents is large. 

Out with the old

La Verne Collins manages the apartments for GLA Property Management and says that the buildings at Oak Park Avenue and Pleasant Street were crying out for a renewed courtyard.

"Before, it was a real eyesore," Collins noted. "From the first time I saw the courtyard, it was always my desire to do this since we first started managing the property 17 years ago. We have the best tenants in the whole world in these buildings, and we wanted to provide a better place for them."

Collins says the project may have been 17 years in the making, but it only took a few months to complete over the summer. "We had some environmental issues that we resolved in the process, but the village made it very easy for us to get all the appropriate permits and get to work."

A local connection

Collins contacted Andy Anwar of Oak Park's Seal Guard Inc. to come up with a plan for the space. A native of the village, Anwar was excited to work on a project strongly connected to the heart of the village. "La Verne had a lot of passion for doing this, and I also had a lot of passion, being from the area."

Anwar has spent his life working on older Oak Park buildings. "As a lifelong resident and masonry restoration contractor in the Oak Park area, I find a great responsibility in maintaining the heritage and diversity that all Oak Parkers appreciate in the architecture that surrounds them."

He approached the project with an eye toward complementing the vintage brick buildings while making the space more pleasant for tenants. 

"Our goal was to improve the quality of life for the people who reside in the neighboring buildings," he said, "through the use of a functional yet aesthetically pleasing courtyard area and green space."

He first met with Collins months before the work actually began. 

"The plan itself took about a month. I went to the site about 10 times to brainstorm and come up with the final drawings. La Verne had a lot of ideas, and she let me change things to make them more aesthetically pleasing or structurally sound." 

Demolition and rebuilding

Once the plans were complete and permits in place, Anwar had to complete an extensive demolition of the existing courtyard. 

"What we started out with was a courtyard that was really just a concrete pad. It was not very level, and parts of it were almost a hazard. I had to take out all the existing concrete covering the space. It was a lot of excavation. We removed about a foot of top soil to make way for the concrete base."

Once the excavation was complete, Anwar could begin to reclaim the approximately 2,700-square-foot space. He used 5-inch-thick, stamped concrete to create a walkway through the space and likens the finished product to a yellow brick road, leading from the Pleasant Street sidewalk to the apartment buildings.

Green space

Collins knew going into the project that she wanted the courtyard to be more than just concrete. "I wanted to create a beautiful green space as well as hardscape." She turned to Roberto Sanchez of Roberto Sanchez Landscaping to add some life to the space.

Sanchez says his goal was to make everything look better while also providing low-maintenance plants. "I used a ton of native plants that are made to withstand the heat of the summer. We used all perennials because you don't have to replant those every year. It's almost a one-time thing. You just plant it and let it go. One time in the fall, you clean everything up, and everything comes up again the next year."

Native grasses and cornflowers add dabs of color, and Sanchez also provided low-maintenance flower boxes for the courtyard during the summer months.

Mutual appreciation

Collins says these buildings are emblematic of her company's connection to the community. A family-owned company, GLA Property Management comprises the initials of her first name, her husband's and their son. The Pleasant Avenue building includes 21 rental units and the Oak Park Avenue building houses 12 residential units as well as storefronts along the avenue.

"Our long-term tenants, in both the residential and retail of these properties, made this project so worthwhile. It's a mutual feeling. We're good to our tenants, and they are good to us. I just love them. We spent a significant amount of money on this project, and it probably took about four loads of concrete, but it is so worth it."

Anwar notes that the good feelings were evident during the construction process. "This was probably one of my more enjoyable projects because the tenants would stop and gasp and say, 'Thank you,' as they walked through. It was so great to see what an impact it made on their lives. For me, it's a great privilege to be asked to design a space, which, if it's designed properly, can have a positive impact on a person's quality of life."

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