Opposition grows to planners' bid to open mall

• Concerns center on construction, safety. Some businesses want auto traffic.

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By DREW CARTER

Debate over the proposal to reopen the Marion Street mall to vehicular traffic has resurfaced after the release of the downtown plan by Crandall Arambula, the Portland, Ore., firm hired by the Village of Oak Park to study its downtown business districts.

The debate pits business owners against each otherâ€"some of whom are next door neighborsâ€"in what's likely the biggest issue to face the mall in more than a decade.

The plan calls for one-way auto traffic from Lake Street south to Westgate on Marion, and two-way traffic from Westgate south to North Boulevard. Parking would appear at various points throughout the path.

The call for opening the mall is driven by two factors, said Don Arambula, a principal with the firm. The primary concern is to improve access to downtown and around a proposed parking deck to be built just east of the Shops of Downtown Oak Park (Pier 1 Imports, Gap and Old Navy buildings).

The presence of cars on Marion would also improve the viability of retail on the mall, Arambula said.

"We find pedestrian-only streets are not successful from a retail standpoint," Arambula said. "Anecdotally what we've found is that areas where parking and traffic have been taken off the street, businesses don't survive."

He said that about 1,000 cars a day could be expected to travel on Marion.

Majority rulesâ€"but which?

Through the firm's public opinion-gathering process, a majority of respondents preferred to see the mall open to cars, Arambula said.

But what about the business ownersâ€"who have more at stake than most in the communityâ€"and clients of mall businesses? That's the question Mickey Baer is asking.

Baer is owner and CEO of A Matter of Style, 114 N. Marion St., and was a corporate planner before starting his business 10 years ago. He served on Oak Park's Plan Commission for a decade.

The "malling" process in the past left "deep-seeded scars" on business owners, Baer said.

"People are very skeptical...that the process wouldn't be without its victims," he said, adding that those fears are based on "the track record of the village's ability to manage a transition."

He and other business owners point to the decision to move the entrance to the CTA Green Line west on North and South boulevards. That meant the disappearance of 5,000 pedestrians a day on the mall, Baer estimated.

Many business owners, for various reasons, did not attend planning sessions to give input on the Crandall Arambula plan, Baer said. So he called for a meeting with the planners and mall owners.

He also gathered his own data. A survey of business owners showed that about three out of four businesses preferred leaving the mall pedestrian-only.

Paul Taylor, of Taylor's Gifts, 105 N. Marion St., is against opening the mall, and discounts evidence that shows retail would be improved.

"Until Oak Park gets the right mix and the right prices, they're just shooting around in the dark," Taylor said.

Tim Eggert, owner of the Competitive Foot, 102 N. Marion St., said that most mall customers are from within a 5-mile radius and already know what's on the mall, so improving visibility wouldn't help.

"Lake Street's still the problem," Eggert said. "I would be in favor of getting Lake Street a better mix and making [capital] improvements to Marion Street."

Mall needs energy of auto traffic

Contrary to what Eggert said, though, are incidents reported by Roger Cameron, owner of Prairie Bread Kitchen, 103 N. Marion St.

Cameron said longtime residents who live within blocks of the mall have come into his cafe and asked how long the operation has been there. When they hear 10 years, they can't believe it.

"I think the right mix of changes could be real positive," Cameron said.

He believes improved visibility and patron's access to parking would improve business on mall, and said that his business, which is already near parking and traffic, would likely benefit the least from the move.

"It's got to have car traffic on it, whether it's one-way or two," said Don Micheli, owner of Spauldings, 106 N. Marion St. The mall is "a very nice environment, but we're doing business here."

He points to the logic that, "if it was the right thing to do on Lake Street, it is the right thing to do on Marion Street.

"We need revitalization. That's what it's all about," Micheli said.

But there's a difference between what would be good for property owners and what would be good for them, business owners said. Micheli is both, being the owner of the building that houses Antiques Etc. on the mall.

He admitted that the move to open the mall would likely mean the value of his property would increase. But he denied that directed his position on the issue, saying his concern was for "better business" for his clothing shop.

Safety a key concern

Baer of A Matter of Style also gathered input from his customers. He said that of the 392 people who signed a petition-like single-question questionnaire, just 11â€"less than 3 percentâ€"were in favor of opening the mall.

He explains that in part by the concern of parents who bring their young children to the mall, unafraid about their kids tearing around the concrete path that's devoid of cars. A Matter of Style has a special salon within its space for kids.

The Crandall Arambula plan calls for a "curbless" street, which Baer said wouldn't be safe. Curbs serve as safety indicators to kids; without them, there would be little to stop them from running into the street.

Baer submitted to the planners a summary of responses he received from business owners, including arguments for keeping the mall closed and suggestions in the event the mall is opened.

Those suggestions include real curbs, one-way traffic and traffic-controlling street construction (such as speed bumps).

Arambula said safety measures would be included in the redesign, including narrow crossing paths, and that business owners would be invited to give their input during the redesign process.

CONTACT: dcarter@wjinc.com

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