The Oak Park Comprehensive Plan recommends finding more open space. The Park District of Oak Park Master Plan states that opportunities should be sought to increase park space. The Oak Park-River Forest Sustainability Plan includes the goal of increasing green space and green infrastructure in the villages.
Yet Oak Park is in danger of destroying one of our most precious open-space, historic treasures: Austin Gardens. The 21-story Vantage Oak Park already casts long morning shadows where there were none before. Now a developer interested in the property at 1000 Lake wants a zoning variance to build another tall building. This might be good for Albion. However, for Oak Park residents, the long-term results would be diminished quality of life and a ruined park. Trees, some over 100 years old, would be in danger of dying. The village as a whole would lose.
There's a better idea. The village, possibly in partnership with the park district and other entities, should purchase the land and build a park. This would have several advantages beyond the admirable ones of beauty and delight. A park would enhance the Lake Street streetscape, provide a gateway to Austin Gardens and the Frank Lloyd Wright district beyond, add to the district's livability, improve quality of life, and provide a welcoming atmosphere for locals and the many visitors arriving each year.
What might this urban oasis be like? Benches, tables and chairs would attract people to meet, eat lunch, and relax. Sustainability and green infrastructure features could include a sun shelter — roofed with solar panels — over part of the area, a rain garden featuring flowering native plants, and well-placed native trees. The park would provide welcome habitat for humans, birds and pollinators alike, feeding clean power into the grid and helping manage storm water.
In summer, there could be a tourist information booth; a food truck might provide al fresco meals, and pre-performance talks might be held by Oak Park Festival Theatre. A mini-farmers market on Wednesday evenings, mini-art fairs on certain Saturdays, and weekly lunchtime concerts would increase foot traffic. In winter, a small christkindlmarket where people could buy presents or a cup of hot chocolate would add to holiday fun.
Besides these practical benefits, taking such a bold step would demonstrate our village's commitment to a shared vision of a human-scaled community that puts the well being of its residents first and prioritizes caring for the great historic assets we have.
Perhaps Oak Park could use another large building. But while dense housing can add to a vibrant downtown community, overbuilding risks creating a generic, over-congested urban space from which the special character that people expect in Oak Park would disappear.
We don't need another skyscraper, especially not there. Oak Park definitely needs another park, and more public meeting space; the corner of Lake and Forest is the perfect place. Let's seize this opportunity to make Oak Park an even better place to live while saving and even enhancing historic Austin Gardens. Let's continue our leadership in urban place-making and sustainability. By doing so, we'll make our village an even more attractive, vibrant and sustainable community.
Longtime resident Adrian Fisher is a member of the core team of PlanItGreen, the Sustainability Plan for Oak Park and River Forest, and the drafting of Oak Park's Comprehensive Plan as part of the sustainability group.