By Dan Haley
The common rip on Oak Park is that it is run as a benign dictatorship by a batch of leftists who seek to determine our every move. Obama socialists who have no respect for the free market, it is said.
Oh, if only this were true — or, if it were true, that our socialist dictator overlords were better at their work. Instead we get the grief of being portrayed as anti-business while the village's efforts to dictate who can locate where are constantly rolled by some combination of bureaucratic weakness or process fatigue.
Two cases in point, starting with the most recent: A Tae Kwon Do studio is about to relocate from Forest Park to 111 N. Oak Park Ave. That's the block with Winberie's and The Irish Shop, il Vicolo and Nora's Shoes. That's one of Oak Park's showcase retail blocks with fabulous old buildings, businesses you call by name, a parking garage the village is still paying for, and, with an extra-special zoning overlay that demands only retail and restaurants.
A number of years back when a storefront bank was close to gobbling up a huge frontage on the block, the village and the local business association sprang to action and imposed the retail overlay for North Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street. It stopped the bank dead in its tracks (and that bank was later closed by the feds).
Of course, we wound up with a nail spa in the same space. But some argue that a nail spa is sort of retail. A martial arts studio, though, is not retail by any logical definition I can conjure. It is a low-end use of prime retail space in a town that is supposed to dictate all.
This week, the Oak Park Plan Commission will hold a hearing on the arcane aspects of whether some commercial special-use variances should be decided at the commission level or if each of them should be kicked back to the village board for its final nod. This debate follows the, to me, shocking approval of a dentist's office in another prime retail space on Lake Street near Euclid Avenue. Yep, that block is also part of the retail overlay district and no one is suggesting that having your teeth capped is a retail use. Instead, the building's owners, and I consider them good friends, argued for the variance on a hardship basis, and they won the day. No one was too worried because all involved assumed the decision went back to the village board and the board seemed clearly anti-dentist. Even some members of the village board were surprised they didn't get the final vote.
So much for being the masters of all one surveys.
The closest our village got to busting a move in the interests of protecting scarce retail was the recent scaring off of a daycare center from a retail space on the fancified South Marion Street. It took some ugly maneuvering and fact-twisting to stop it, but it felt like the right outcome.
Oak Park is about to start looking for a new economic development manager. You assume the person will be involved in finding big developers to help fill the long vacant village-owned development sites in and around Downtown Oak Park. That's good. But how about this person also becomes the embodiment of sticking up and aggressively protecting the retail zoning we already have, of making real the hundreds of thousands the village has spent on master plans to make us a retail and restaurant destination rather than a village that settles for a karate studio dead center on a main drag.
Disclaimers: As noted last week I'm long active in the business association along Oak Park Avenue and Lake and worked hard on the retail-only designation on North Oak Park Avenue. I'm also a minority owner of the Journal's headquarters on South Oak Park Avenue and we've currently got a storefront we are trying to lease. Time to find ourselves a Tae Kwon Do school.