The Village of Oak Park is looking at, among other properties, making the local exit ramps of the Eisenhower Expressway historic landmarks, in an effort to block expansion of the highway. And the village landed a sizable federal grant last week to aid in the effort.
Oak Park announced last week that it's getting a $21,140 grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior. The village plans to use the money to investigate whether there are any historically significant properties between Austin and Oak Park Avenue, two blocks north and south of the Eisenhower.
If historic properties are discovered later this year, Village Manager Tom Barwin believes Oak Park might have extra leverage if the Illinois Department of Transportation ever decides to widen the highway.
"The days of just bulldozing under significant properties are a thing of the past," Barwin said. "They have to be discussed and analyzed and alternatives have to be considered."
The community fought for exits on the left, when the interstate was built in the 1950s, as a way to keep construction from taking even larger chunks of land bordering the highway. Last year, Barwin asked the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission to explore if the village can protect the ramps — along with any other architecturally significant structures near the highway.
That request led to Oak Park applying for the $21,140 grant, according to Doug Kaarre, urban planner for the village. Oak Park was one of eight communities awarded the grants, which are specifically tailored to historic preservation projects.
Kaarre said Oak Park plans to start looking for consultants to do the study in the next week or so. Studying the 600 properties in the area (as well as the exit ramps) would start in May and continue through the summer. The village will study Austin to Oak Park Avenue first, with hopes of applying for another grant, and west to Harlem later on.
Oak Park hopes to find out whether any properties or entire districts might be eligible to become local or national landmarks. National designation is mostly honorary, while local landmark status requires review by the preservation commission for any exterior changes or demolition.
The village already has two local landmarks along the expressway — the Maze branch of the Oak Park Public Library and the Oak Park Conservatory. The latter is also a national landmark.
Chris Morris, head of the preservation commission, said the village would likely be taking on the survey regardless of whether IDOT were exploring expanding the expressway. She hopes the results will be useful in saving local landmarks.
"What this does is very clearly call out for IDOT that these are the areas in Oak Park that we feel are significant, architecturally or historically, and therefore these are the areas that we're going to want to work hardest to protect," she said.
IDOT doesn't currently have any plans to expand the expressway. Right now, they're assessing alternatives to expansion, such as extending the Blue Line farther west, said Rick Kuner, a transportation planner and former village trustee who has followed the process as part of a group called Citizens for Appropriate Transportation.
Kuner doesn't believe landmarking the ramps would help to stop IDOT, but he does believe that designating properties or districts as landmarks might aid in the battle.
"I actually think that's a more sensible solution," he said.