What are we losing by keeping the Colt?

Opinion

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Business and Civic Council, One View

In exercising its right under a redevelopment agreement with the Taxman Corporation, the Village of Oak Park will purchase the Colt building and the nearby 1145 Westgate for an estimated $7.5 million. We recognize that the looming Feb. 28 deadline and complications presented by the Taxman Corporation's recent sale of the Shops of Downtown Oak Park more than likely dictated this outcome.

The question, then, is, "What now?"

The village's purchase of the Colt building is not necessarily the same thing as a final decision on the future of this property or the rest of the Downtown Oak Park revitalization. There's a long way yet to go, and we urge all Oak Park stakeholders to take part in this important community debate?#34;residential and commercial taxpayers, school districts and other local units of government, parents of public school students, users of our parks and recreational facilities, community redevelopment advocates and others. Our ability to fund those things important to us all is determined by what happens on economic growth issues such as downtown redevelopment. The BCC will certainly be an active participant as this process moves forward.

There's no question that at this time, a majority of the village board is determined to preserve the Colt building at all costs. Our hope is that once the fiscal and economic realities of this unwise course of action are fully understood, and the board recognizes the opportunities that would be lost to our community by doing that, the Colt building will be seen for what it is: a marginal building whose greatest contribution to downtown redevelopment would be its demolition to make way for a new thoroughfare connecting Lake Street and a downtown parking garage along North Boulevard.

We only ask that the village board move quickly to get the information it needs, and if it so chooses, issue an RFP for reconstruction of the Colt building. We need to get this resolved. And the village should not be in the business of owning and managing $7.5 million worth of commercial office space. That's a misuse of precious tax dollars.

We believe the process of gathering information and reviewing RFPs for reconstruction of the Colt building will make it abundantly clear that the only sound course of action is to implement the recommendations of the citizen-led Superblock Steering Committee appointed by the village board last year.

Out of balance

As things now stand, a majority on the village board is putting historical preservation above all other considerations. It is a position that is totally out of balance. It gives greater weight to the historical preservation of a marginal building than to the needs of our community for a vibrant and economically viable downtown that will attract shoppers from the area and provide the maximum amount of tax revenues for public schools, public safety and reinvestment in our neighborhoods.

And the irony is that this would not even amount to true historical preservation. It would be about historical re-construction because the Colt building (1125-33 Lake Street) is a 1930s-era creation that long ago lost any historical character it may once have had. We would define true historical preservation as the upkeep of Unity Temple and other truly significant buildings and homes in Oak Park. And the redevelopment plan of the Superblock Steering Committee, which we support, would preserve buildings on Westgate regarded as more significant than the Colt building.

In seeking to re-create the Colt building, the current board majority on this issue would be ignoring the need of major retailers for modern, spacious, visible retail space. In eliminating the possibility of a new street connecting Lake Street to a parking garage along North Boulevard, they would be ignoring the need of retailers and shoppers alike for improved traffic flow in our downtown.

Our downtown is not meant to be a museum, but a vital retail, entertainment, dining and commercial hub that draws village residents and visitors from neighboring communities. Rebuilding the Colt building would represent the manifestation of a dogmatic, single-minded focus on historical preservation at any cost. And the cost to our community is potentially substantial in missed opportunities and lost tax revenues.

What will we lose?

Oak Park taxpayers must be concerned about the fiscal consequences of this decision, as we will be spending $7.5 million for the Colt building and 1145 Westgate. The cost of renovating the Colt building has been estimated at another several million dollars. How would this be financed? What would not be redeveloped, revitalized or preserved as a result? How much less revenue would a rebuilt Colt building generate than a modern retail space, together with additional retail corners created by a new connecting thoroughfare from Lake Street to North Boulevard?

What kinds of exciting visions for downtown might be possible if the Colt building were not an obstacle? Will the village board majority that now supports reconstruction of the Colt building be sufficiently open-minded to consider other alternatives if the participatory planning process results in proposals from developers that clearly do not serve the goals of our community? We will seek answers to these and other questions as this process now apparently moves forward.

Moving forward, we insist that the village board respect citizen involvement as exemplified in the fine work of the citizen-led Superblock Steering Committee. We urge the village board to at least consider the advice and counsel of independent and nationally recognized urban planners retained at significant expense to taxpayers. And we demand that the ultimate decision on the Colt building and downtown redevelopment be informed by advice from independent, professional architects and planners?#34;whether village staff or outside consultants?#34;and not from self-appointed "experts" representing only themselves, their particular theory of life and their political party.

The Business and Civic Council of Oak Park pledges to work with trustees and all interested parties to pursue downtown revitalization, resulting in the maximum long-term benefit to the economic and social vitality of the entire village.

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