Plan puts OP's downtown on the road to 'Anywhere USA'

Opinion

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Royce A. Yeater, One View

Recently the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced the designation of Oak Park as one of its Dozen Distinctive Destinations?#34;12 towns from across the nation that have demonstrated a commitment to the revitalization of their community using the principles of historic preservation. Our goal in that program is to demonstrate to others how the preservation of the essential historic character of a community can create attractive and livable environments, and serve as an economic engine driving smart growth. It is also intended to benefit the chosen communities by generating cultural tourism, the fastest growing and most lucrative aspect of the travel industry today.

There is no doubt that Oak Park has done an outstanding job over the years of preserving its rich architectural heritage in several large residential historic districts. Those in turn have served as catalysts of community pride that is apparent in nearly every residential neighborhood. Such neighborhoods are prized today as desirable places to live. That market fuels real estate values and continuous appropriate reinvestment in older homes.

But the other element of a community rich in historic character is its downtown, and the vitality that comes with the preservation of traditional commercial environments featuring unique and interesting shops. The current Downtown Master Plan under consideration by the village trustees threatens the character of downtown, and will likely lead to a more bland commercial area similar to that of every other suburban community.

Downtown Oak Park now is an attractive mix of older, human scaled buildings occupied by a diverse retail mix, including several locally owned unique shops. It is a good place to be, and it helps attract both residents and visitors because it is distinctive. That does not mean, however, that it is perfect. Any master plan promising to make it better should first consider how to preserve its best characteristics, and then enhance and compliment those with a few carefully designed improvements.

Instead, the Master Plan currently under consideration proposes to demolish 27 potentially historic buildings, and create a 6-story street wall that would destroy its village-like character. The citizens of Oak Park, of which I am one, had prioritized the retention of the downtown's unique historic character at the beginning of the planning process, but the current plan defies their preference for a preservation strategy. The rationale offered by the planning consultant for this is that current retail structures are obsolete, that retailers today demand larger floor plates, and that the market demands the highest use of the land to maximize landlord income. If the goal is to attract more chain retailers, they may be right, but the corollary result will be a dilution of Oak Park into Anywhere, USA.

These predictions are not casual. They are based on 25 years of experience with the Main Street program, first piloted here in our office. As a part of our mission to revitalize communities, the National Trust Main Street Center has offered a comprehensive commercial district revitalization strategy that has proven itself widely successful in over 1,800 towns and cities nationwide. Main Street has spurred $17 billion in public and private reinvestment, and the rehabilitation of almost 94,000 historic properties nationwide.

Based on this experience and our thorough analysis of the proposed master plan documents, we have conveyed in detail our comments to the village planner, offering assistance, and encouraging the village to significantly redraft major elements of the plan before it is adopted.

As the national non-profit voice for historic preservation, with over 200,000 members dedicated to the preservation of America's irreplaceable historic resources and the revitalization of communities, we have appreciated the opportunity to be a part of the planning process. We have tracked the process from beginning to end and participated along with many other citizens who expressed similar concerns in the last public forum on this subject held by the village on Feb. 2. We are also participating in public forum sponsored by the Oak Park Architectural League on Thursday, March 17, 7 p.m. at Pleasant Home.

The trustees have before them a unique opportunity to shape the future and long-term viability of downtown Oak Park. There are basically two choices: either we recognize and preserve those characteristics that have made Oak Park such an interesting, lively and desirable destination, or we turn it into yet another anonymous shopping center overwhelmed by the same stores, same buildings, and same parking ramps that can be found throughout the suburbs of Chicago and across the country. We hope that the village trustees will make the correct choice and listen to their constituents who have chosen to live, work and play in Oak Park because they love what the downtown already has to offer and want so see it enhanced and preserved.

Royce Yeater is Midwest Director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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