Austin Gardens proposals narrowed to three

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The plan for the renovation of Austin Gardens has narrowed to three "schemes" said Carol Yetken of CYLA Design Associates, the landscape architecture firm hired by the Park District of Oak Park.

Following a series of focus groups and forums to elicit public input over the past several months, Yetken presented three proposals to the park board and the public in separate meetings last week.

All three have the same landscape treatment in common, Yetken said. The northern, forested part of the park would be devoted to native plants with a specialized maintenance plan that involves systematic culling of invasive, non-native trees and shrubs that shade out the understory?#34;Norway maples being the primary culprit. The perimeter would also be culled of maples and "strengthened" with more ornamental trees and shrubs that flower in the spring, turn color in the fall and provide a fuller green buffer in summer. The clearing/meadow/lawn area would remain the same, protected against encroachment from the forested area to the north.

In addition, the west and a portion of the south fence would be replaced, replicating the corten steel fence found around the rest of the park.

The main differences in the three schemes involve the old "garage" in the southeast portion of the park. The public requested such amenities as permanent washrooms instead of porta-potties, a shelter from the rain, and a destination where interpretive nature and history activities could be conducted?#34;in addition to the current use, which is supporting Festival Theatre's summer Shakespeare productions.

The garage was built sometime between 1935 and 1949, according to Yetken's research, after the original Austin family home had been moved back from its Lake Street frontage. Once upon a time, the Austins had both a dance hall and a teahouse on their property, but those were torn down and had no connection with the remaining structure. The building is in good shape, but limited in its usefulness because, as Yetken puts it, "It's just a garage."

Scheme 1 would keep it and make the best of the situation, perhaps finding a way to conduct some nature activities related to the park's plant life. The summer porta-potties would be moved to a more discreet location behind the building so they can be serviced from the alley to the south.

Scheme 2 would replace the garage with a new building, modest in scale, with washroom facilities, an interpretive activity area, and possibly a tearoom/coffeehouse.

Scheme 3 would keep the garage and build permanent washrooms immediately to the east.

Another possibility suggested was a small gazebo added as a "charm element."

Yetken said that, based on last week's presentations, Scheme 3 is the least popular, and Scheme 2 (the new building) was the most warmly received.

The next step is to distill the three proposals to one and present the final draft to the park board in either April or early May.

Yetken is pleased with the response to date. The public seems to understand the need to systematically cull the invasive plants in order to allow "a more diverse plant palette." And residents also seem receptive to the opportunities provided by a new, in-scale building.

"That was the biggest hump for us to get over," she said.
?#34;Ken Trainor

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