At final meeting, board OKs downtown plan

?Amidst opposition from preservationists, Westgate tenants, downtown plan OK'd in 6-1 vote.

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By KATHARINE GRAYSON

After protests from a dozen residents, tenants of Westgate Avenue offices and historic preservation advocates, the village board voted 6-1 to adopt consulting firm Crandall and Arambula's master plan for downtown Oak Park.

The board was still considering amendments to the plan well after midnight Tuesday morning. After substantial debate, trustees agreed to create a "downtown design commission," which would be comprised of business owners, architects and preservationists. The commission, proposed by Trustee Gus Kostopulos, would play a role in how the plan is implemented.

Several more general amendments proposed by Trustee Galen Gockel were also passed. Gockel's accepted proposals require that the board "thoroughly explore" alternatives to demolishing Westgate Avenue buildings, and that trustees make it the policy of the board that buildings be considered for adaptive re-use, and not just be "acquired and demolished."

Trustee Robert Milstein was the only board member to vote against adopting the plan, saying he believed historic preservation issues should be addressed before trustees approve it.

The Tudor revival buildings along the 1100 block of Westgate have been recently placed on the Landmark Preservation Council of Illinois' Top 10 Most Endangered Historic Places list.

Crandall and Arambula has argued that the village should create a new street downtown, which would run north from the train station on North Boulevard through to Lake Street. Between 4-5 buildings on Westgate would have to be demolished to create that street. Preservationists put that number at 5-6.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has also voiced concern about how the plan will affect other buildings that some have argued have historic merit.

Royce Yeater, Midwest director for the national trust, said at Monday's meeting that the plan will compromise the "brand identity that is Oak Park."

"We would ask you to listen to citizens. There are certain major elements that are not acceptable to the community," Yeater said.

In addition, the village's Historic Preservation Commission also issued a report voicing concern that the plan may put historic buildings at risk. Up to roughly 25 buildings could be demolished as part of the plan, though Crandall and Arambula said debate will likely center on far fewer structures.

Several residents and Westgate tenants who testified Monday either urged trustees to vote down the plan, or to table it until further discussion could take place.

"Some people say it's obstructionist to talk about preservation, but we need to have some dialogue, and see if there's another model," said Frank Lipo, director of the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest. "Station Street will remove five historic buildings. The tradeoffs haven't really been discussed."

Tenants of the building said they had not been notified that their buildings may be at risk of demolition, and argued that their street is worth saving.

"I've been astounded by what has happened here. Almost universally, the thing I hear from people is what a beautiful street this is," said Boone Brackett, who has had an office at 1125 Westgate Ave. for 35 years. "Putting a street down the middle of it is as senseless as the bombing of Dresden."

Many residents also argued that public input did not play a strong enough role in development of the plan.

Crandall and Arambula held four public meetings, attended by 400-500 people and met with 50 "stakeholder" groups. After putting forward recommendations, those who attended, voted for proposed concepts through an anonymous ballot system.

Firm principal George Crandall said they used the method in order to get input from less outspoken residents.

At Monday's meeting, Crandall said he had confidence in the ballot system, but also said "historic preservation is obviously an issue."

"It's the flashpoint tonight and that's unfortunate, but here we are," he said. "It's important to not look like just any other place, and we don't take your concerns lightly."

Crandall said he supported the Kostopulos design commission proposal, but also said he didn't believe a vote on the plan should be delayed.

"Ongoing discussions would have very little purpose other than to engage in hand-to-hand combat over two issues," he said. "The plan has a lot of good elements."

The majority of board members said they felt the plan was a general guide that should be adopted and potentially revised in the future.

"I'm very comfortable with moving forward. A lot of input has been provided in this plan," said Trustee Ray Johnson. "Any number of parts of the Lakota Plan weren't implemented, and parts of this plan won't be implemented. What I don't want to say is let's wait one or two weeks. To finalize every issue could take up to two years."

"This is really just a guideline. It's not a panacea to cure every ill," Village President Joanne Trapani said. Trustee Diana Carpenter also supported adopting the plan Monday, but said it was inappropriate for the board to be debating amendments so late in the evening.

Trustee Galen Gockel voted for the plan, but said he believed residents should have additional opportunities to give input on the final document.

"This plan has not been vetted by the community," he said. "It's demonstrably true that this plan really does give historic preservation short shrift. It's hard to imagine that we would adopt this without taking hits seriously. We should look for broader support of the plan."

Trustee David Pope said agreed that historic preservation is a concern, but that it could be addressed even after adopting the plan.

"I'm attracted to 85 percent of this plan. I'm concerned about the Marion mall and Westgate," he said. "The National Trust for Historic Preservation is clearly not the lunatic fringe."

Trustee Robert Milstein said, however, that the board should take a couple of weeks to have coffee with historic preservation organizations to get input on the plan before voting on it. He said he felt like he had "half the story" because he didn't receive a letter from the National Trust on the plan until the night of the board meeting.

"Once you put something in motion, it happens. I'm embarrassed that we have a plan that talks about taking our values and destroying them," he said. "Quite bluntly, [the plan] stinks."

CONTACT: kgrayson@wjinc.com

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