Downtown plan praised and panned

• Consultants list five top projects some of which involve demolition of existing buildings.

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By KATHARINE GRAYSON

The veil is just days off Crandall and Arambula's near-final master plan for downtown, but the consulting firm's bold recommendations have already generated both acclaim and outrage.

The plan, presented at a public forum last week, would clearly change the face of Oak Park's central business district.

The consultant's top recommendations are likely to be the most debated. First on the firm's to-do list is creating "Station Street," a new roadway that would run from the train station on North Boulevard through to Lake Street, and would require demolition of four or five buildings. Following closely behind is the controversial re-opening of the Marion Street pedestrian mall.

Both measures are requiredâ€"especially Station Streetâ€"to improve traffic circulation downtown, firm principal George Crandall said last week.

It will, however, also require the demolition of some Tudor-style buildings along the currently cul-de-sac'd Westgate Avenue. Demolition on Westgate, designed in the early 1930s to resemble an English market square, has drawn criticism from preservationists.

"These are beautiful buildings that could be could be converted back to their original [retail] use," said local architect Frank Heitzman.

Heitzman has put together a list of 21 buildings the plan puts at risk, which he said are historic resources that Oak Park "really needs to be thinking about."

Crandall, however, said to not tear down some of Oak Park's older commercial structures would "hermetically seal the fate of downtown."

"We hate to remove any old buildings. But the case here is that things will work a lot better if old buildings are replaced with new buildings," he said.

"If our charge was that any old buildings are off limits, we would have said we'll go home, there's nothing to do here," he added at a Tax Increment Financing hearing Monday, noting that community debate will likely only eventually center on between three and seven buildings.

Critics at last week's forum also charged that the plan was incomplete, and didn't incorporate enough community input.

Village officials, however, said the plan represents a decisive, and positive, shift in how Tax Increment Financing dollars will be spent, though extension of the TIF itself has proven controversial.

Creating Station Street is just one of the plan's recommendations calling for investment in infrastructure and public improvement projects. Developing a new public square at the site of the Hobbytown building on Lake Street, adding new streetscaping along Lake Street and constructing a new mixed-use parking garage at Forest Avenue and Lake are also top priorities in the plan.

Overall, Crandall Arambula projects public investment should be $68.8 million, as opposed to $461.7 million in private investment, a ratio of 7-1. Consultants said public investment will draw more private investment; for instance, if Station Street is created, retail will develop along the new roadway.

"This plan is a shift in the kind of investment the village needs to makeâ€"from writing down development to purchasing land for public assets that will enable encouragement of development around [those assets]," said Village Manager Carl Swenson.

The plan will also create a "certainty" in the development process that is currently lacking, Swenson said.

The plan includes a variety of design guidelines developers would have to meet, including details such as the appropriate look of signs and doors.

Other recommendations, including a new height limit on Lake Street, may be incorporated into the zoning code, said Village Planner Craig Failor. The consultants have recommended buildings on Lake Street be no higher than the historic Marshall Field building. 

"There is an underlying problem for us community wide. Many things are now just at the discretion of the village board and that creates a lot of anxiety," Swenson said.

Donna Ogdon Chen, director of Downtown Oak Park, said Downtown's board has yet to take a formal position on the plan, but is "heartened by it."

"We see a lot of opportunity," she said, adding that the board is especially supportive of increasing the parking supply.


A historic downtown?

The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency has determined downtown Oak Park, as it exists today, may be eligible to land a spot on the historic registry, an agency official said Monday.

The Lake Street corridor, and neighboring Forest Avenue, Ontario and Marion Streets, and even Austin Gardens have historic merit, said Tracey Sculle, coordinator of the agency's national registry.

"It's a nice, intact row of commercial buildings, consistent with commercial districts in other towns," she said.

However, if Oak Park decides to pursue a listing on the registry, Sculle said she wouldn't "encourage" tearing down any buildings in the area.

The agency acts as a facilitator in placing historic areas on the registry, she said. An official nomination form would have to be submitted, and the agency would send a letter to property owners.

If over half of property owners objected to the listing, it wouldn't be approved, she said.

The measure would not have to be approved by the village board, but would be reviewed by the Historic Preservation Commission.

Planning consultants Crandall and Arambula said last week improvements to downtown Oak Park should begin with five key "catalyst" projects, starting with creation of "Station Street," and wrapping up with construction of a new public square on Lake Street.

Among the top five are also: re-opening the Marion Street Mall, adding streetscaping to Lake Street and creating a new parking garage and enhancing retail at Lake Street and Forest Avenue.

In order to ease traffic congestion downtown, Crandall and Arambula have recommended the village pursue construction of a new street.

The new roadway, now dubbed Station Street, would flow from the train station entrance on North Boulevard through to Lake Street, between Marion Street and Harlem Avenue, as shown above.

Consultants said one critical problem with downtown is constraints imposed by a "super block" development model, which always forces drivers onto large congested streets.

To build the new street, however, between four to five buildings would have to be torn down, including some on Westgate Avenue.

From Station Street, drivers could turn west to reach Harlem Avenue, or east to re-opened Marion Street.

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