Historic preservationists in Oak Park and beyond orchestrated a small insurrection last Thursday at "the 11th hour" before the village board's planned vote on the Crandall-Arambula Downtown Master Plan (approved 6-1 at the village board meeting Monday night).
Over a hundred people showed up on St. Patrick's Day evening to hear from a panel of state historic preservation officials, the head of the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest, and two local architects. Jeff Foster, head of the village's Historic Preservation Commission, was the moderator of the event, co-sponsored by the Historical Society and the Oak Park Architectural League.
Historical Society Executive Director Frank Lipo set the tone, noting that the Crandall plan lionized Oak Park's historic small-town feel, but said the particulars of the plan "devalued the historic character." Though the plan contained some "excellent things," he said, the proposed demolition of up to a couple of dozen historic buildings, including five (and part of a sixth) on Westgate represented "a large loss in a small area."
The plan, he said, shouldn't be adopted unless it did a better job of addressing historic preservation. Those sentiments were echoed by the invited experts, as well as the audience, throughout the evening.
Village Planner Craig Failor gave the village's overview powerpoint presentation of the plan, emphasizing that Crandall-Arambula represents only a guideline for future development; it isn't set in stone.
And with that in mind, the three state preservation officials took turns critiquing it. All acknowledged positive elements in the plan, and all said the plan doesn't go far enough in preserving historic character.
Anne Haaker, deputy state historic preservation officer with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, said 70 percent of the current buildings in the downtown area would "contribute" to qualifying the area for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. If all the demolitions proposed in Crandall-Arambula occurred, she said, it probably would no longer qualify. That listing is accompanied by "a bundle of incentives" that would benefit future economic development, while preserving the historic integrity.
Lisa Dichiera, director of advocacy for the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, explained why the Tudor-style Westgate development had been listed on their Top 10 Most Endangered Places list recently. She specifically questioned the location of the proposed "Station Street" in the Crandall plan, which would plow through the middle of Westgate as it carves a street from the Metra/Green Line station entrance north to Lake Street.
"It should really be called 'Parking Garage Street'," Dichiera said, because the footprint of a proposed parking garage along North Boulevard and overlapping with the current Shops of Downtown Oak Park surface parking lot would push Station Street to the east, forcing it to consume more of Westgate than preservationists think is necessary.
She compared Westgate to Market Square in Lake Forest, a notable example of a preserved historic area, which is nonetheless a successfully revitalized shopping area. Frank Lipo noted that the research indicates Westgate was, in fact, originally modeled on Market Square.
Dichiera said the village needs to have more dialogue with perservationists on Station Street. She liked the idea of opening Westgate and Marion Street to traffic, but wondered why Station Street couldn't be moved further west in order to preserve more of the historic buildings on Westgate.
Royce Yeater, Midwest director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said he has a personal stake in this issue because he and over half of his staff live in Oak Park, precisely because of its historic character. Yeater made the strongest case for the prospect of dovetailing economic development and historic preservation. He said they need not be mutually exclusive. In fact, in his experience with similar municipalities throughout his 8-state region, he finds that developers are more than willing to bend to fit an area with character because they see the potential payoff.
Yeater touted the Main Street program, which came out of his office in the late 1970s. In the past, Main Street applied only to communities under 50,000 in population, but it now features an "urban node" for larger, more urban suburbs like Oak Park (Forest Park's Madison Street is one of the program's more noteworthy success stories, he observed). He said he made a proposal to the village, but has received no response.
Instead of bending to developers, Yeater said, the village needs to "sell the brand of Oak Park," which means stressing historic character.
"There's nothing wrong with the goals" of economic development in Oak Park, he said. "The problem is the methodology. Oak Park is not a time capsule, but historic preservation can be used as an economic engine." Other communities have already proved that Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) can be successful.
"We shouldn't turn our back on our past when other communities are using theirs," Yeater said. "Retailers will bend to be where they need to be if you create a good environment. We don't have to live in a fear environment."
Questions from the audience largely concerned what can be done at this late stage in the plan's development. Among those speaking were Dick Hastings, the village's chief building inspector from 1985-87 and an architect who lives in an apartment in one of the Westgate buildings, and Gene Reisinger a co-owner of 1122-26 Westgate, which once housed the famed Blue Parrot Tea Room, a gathering place for village notables, including Frank Lloyd Wright.