Recent property improvements and business openings have improved the look of the Marion Street mall at a time when its pedestrian-only nature may be in jeopardy.
A village-hired consultant studying all of downtown Oak Park has recommended the mall be reopened to vehicular traffic, an idea supported by the head of the village's Plan Commission (see sidebar).
Meanwhile, improvements to three properties on the mall have been completed or are near completion. The projects were undertaken independently of one another, the Crandall study, and the holiday shopping season.
The village demolished the former Sawyer Business College building approximately a year after acquiring it, following a five-year eminent domain battle.
In its place is a small sodded green space, bordered on the rear and north sides by an iron fence. Next-door to the south, Carriage Flower Shop, 124 N. Marion St., supplied green garland and holiday decorations to spruce up the fence during the holidays.
"It certainly looks a lot more attractive than it did when the Sawyer building was up," said Donna Ogdon-Chen, executive director of the Downtown Oak Park business association.
Other decorations, including a giant Christmas tree at the north end, bedeck the mall with bouts of jolly.
The Sawyer building was demolished to avoid pest problems, said Mike Chen, village development director. The building sat empty since 1991, according to previous WEDNESDAY JOURNAL reports.
Cost of the project was approximately $53,000, said Village Engineer Jim Budrick. Demolition and refilling the hole from the former building cost $38,000, while the sod and fence cost $10,000, and brick work on the mall side of the property cost $5,000.
The sodded area does not cover the entire parcel, though. The rear portion behind the fence will be used as a loading area for nearby businesses.
Chen said any decisions on future uses of the parcel will likely wait until completion of the Crandall plan. The village has said that any development there would probably have a first-floor retail component, in accordance with the "retail transit overlay" zoning rule.
The village looked into using the property for parking in the short term, Chen said, which was "problematic for a number of reasons," including the dimensions of the lot.
Because the village acquired the property through condemnationâ€"or eminent domainâ€"it would normally have to identify some "public use" for the space. However, because the land falls within a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district, the village may sell the property to a developer for any otherwise allowable use, said William E. Ryan, a lawyer with the Chicago firm Ryan and Ryan, which handles only eminent domain matters.
Because the underlying philosophy of a TIF district is to remove or prevent blighted areas in a municipality, the development of a condemned property becomes the "public use," Ryan said.
Sales won't cover costs
Sales at Taylor's Gifts, 105 N. Marion, have been down the entire time George Bush has been in office, said owner Paul Taylor.
"My business is healthy ... I don't owe anything," he said. "But if I closed the business and rented the space, I would make more than I'm making now."
So it wasn't for tax purposes that Taylor began a $7,000 facade repair to the building he owns, which houses his store as well as the Thai restaurant The King & I.
It was just time.
"It just needed a facelift," Taylor said.
When he bought the property 11 years ago, Taylor completely renovated itâ€"inside and outâ€"himself, with some help from friends. The wood and stucco exterior he put on was a "very poor facade," he said.
But finding someone to do the work recently wasn't easy. Taylor said he contacted 15 companies for estimates on the job. Neither of the two that showed up for a pre-estimate inspection ever called back, he said.
So, he found an unemployed carpenter to do the work on weekends, which turned out to be a more expensive solution for Taylor, who had applied for project funding through the Oak Park Development Corporation. OPDC requires two estimates on projects it funds, so Taylor had to pay the full cost, he said.
Scaffolding around Atrium gone
At the northwest end of the mall, scaffolding recently came down from around the Atrium building, 1101 Lake St.
Work there completed a three-year renovation of the building, starting with the first-floor build-out for Cosi, the prominent cafe and coffee shop tenant, and ending with second- and third-floor facade renovations and removal of stone mullions from around windows.
At the south end of the mall, the Marion Street Cheese Shop, 101 N. Marion St., opened just before Thanksgiving in the former Mixed Company space. Mixed Company has moved to 1107 Chicago Ave.
The cheese shop offers specialty domestic and imported cheeses, and foodie gifts such as cheese boards and olive dishes.
"I'm trying to offer a selection of cheese to people in Oak Park and River Forest that they just wouldn't be able to get anywhere else," owner Eric Larson said in October.
Other recent mall openings include the eclectic pet gift shop Scratch 'n Sniff, 120 N. Marion St., and the opening of Meme's, an antique and jewelry shop at 1109 Westgate St., after the Rocking Horse Boutique moved to 119 N. Marion St., former home to the Daily Grind.