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A standing-room-only crowd at the Oak Park Library gave electorate approval last week to the township government's purchase of 126-134 S. Oak Park Ave. The two-story building will be used as a senior services center.
The township board had already approved the deal, using funds husbanded over the past decade. And with the sales contract in hand, the government body just needed Oak Park voters to say OK, and they obliged at a meeting March 2.
"Opportunity knocked, not on our door, but right across the street," said Township Supervisor David Boulanger.
After about a year of "waiting and negotiating" with the property's current owner, Granite Realty, the township will pay about $650,000 for the vacant property. That's about half what the price would have been five years ago, according to Boulanger. The township was able to pay for the building without passing a referendum or taking on debt, and the proposed remodeling requires no zoning variances.
"This is an opportunity to finally make convenient and accessible our services that keep our seniors independent in their homes and apartments ... and to do so without new taxes," Boulanger said.
The approval of at least 15 registered voters was required by state township electoral rules, which date back to the "mid-19th century," according to Boulanger. Other elected boards are not required to get voter approval to buy property if they don't have to raise money. Some 139 registered voters attended the meeting, where 97 voted for the purchase and 11 voted nay, according to the township.
One dissenter was Geppetto's Toy Box owner Brandy Masoncup, president of The Avenue Business Association. Masoncup said that she was concerned that the "eclectic, urban-suburban, independently owned boutique business center" in The Avenue business district was a destination where, "retail space is limited."
"We would love the senior center to be located in our district," Masoncup said. "We are concerned that it would be relocated on one of our busiest shopping streets."
Realtor Jack Strand, who owns many buildings in Oak Park, also objected saying, "I keep thinking of Aurora, Chicago Heights. Whenever you go into their downtowns, nothing's happening. So they put in senior citizens centers; they put in PADS centers ... When they say we're going into a blighted area, it's bogus. This is a viable location."
But Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar pointed out that the building's previous tenants, a vacuum supply store and a laundromat, were not successful.
"It's not the best location," he said.
Senior services are currently housed in a cramped space on the fifth and sixth floors of the Oak Park Arms, 408 S. Oak Park Ave., where the township pays $120,000 a year for rent. Boulanger said the township — even after paying another $500,000 to rehab the new building — would save about $60,000 per year in the new location, allowing funds to be reallocated to new programming.
Renovation is expected to be completed by the spring of 2012. The township's lease on its current senior services space at the Oak Park Arms ends on June 30, 2012.
The building was originally supposed to be part of a high-profile condo project across the street from the CTA Green Line stop. But the economy tanked, and it, along with three other nearby properties, fell into foreclosure.