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Come this fall, Roosevelt Road, Oak Park's southern border, will be decked out with brick sidewalks, decorative streetlights and bike racks. But the fact remains that stretches of the street on its north side are vacant, underused and even blighted.
On the Berwyn side of Roosevelt, development has picked up in recent years. The city has its own Culver's fast-food franchise coming in June, and an Oak Park entrepreneur is opening a European-style café, complete with its own greenhouse.
Berwyn is kicking in about $1.2 million to make those two projects happen, funds from its tax increment financing district — a pool of money used for infrastructure projects and to entice developers. Those dollars may be creating a competitive advantage for Berwyn over Oak Park, said Paul Zimmermann, an Oak Parker and president of the Roosevelt Road Business Association.
"It's hard to get businesses to look at the Oak Park side of Roosevelt Road when on the Berwyn side they could get up to half of their startup costs covered for them by the TIF. It's a struggle," he said. "You look at Roosevelt Road and you can see that the newer businesses going in are all on the Berwyn side. There's really nothing going in at the moment on the Oak Park side."
But TIFs are a touchy subject at the moment in Oak Park, which currently has three TIF districts. The public high school is suing village hall over money it says it is owed from Oak Park's downtown TIF.
Village Manager Tom Barwin thinks, because of the lawsuit, that starting a new TIF would be a tough sell.
"In light of the grief and some of the silo thinking that's going on here, it would probably be an uphill battle," Barwin said.
So local leaders are exploring alternatives to help move Roosevelt development forward. One way could be to create a "special service area," an extra tax on property owners that would fund maintenance of the street, promotions and special events.
Such an SSA could be paid for by all three towns (including Cicero and Berwyn) that share Roosevelt between Austin and Harlem, Barwin said,. Downtown Oak Park already has an SSA, which provides the $650,000 budget for the shopping district's business association.
The three communities have already collaborated to fund the $9.5-million street project on Roosevelt, which is expected to be finished by mid-November. And Oak Park, Berwyn and Cicero have all adopted new zoning regulations governing how the street can be developed in the future.
Oak Park Development Corp. is making active efforts to recruit businesses to the north side of Roosevelt, said Village President David Pope, using tools such as façade grants and loans. Berwyn's development corporation has played a big role in helping to revitalize the street for the village's southern neighbor, he added.
Pope hopes that the new street project will make Roosevelt friendlier for pedestrians and bicyclists and a more attractive spot for new businesses.
"The emphasis right now is on completing the infrastructure investments and continuing to support the village and OPDC programs designed to encourage investment through the corridor," Pope said.
Still, it's hard not to think about TIFs, says Zimmermann, who owns buildings on both sides of the street and is president of the Berwyn Development Corp. Cicero is also considering starting a Roosevelt TIF, he said. And one stretch of vacant properties along Roosevelt — between Humphrey and Taylor, which formerly included a used-car dealership and a video store — is tailor-made for the use of TIF dollars, he said.
"Developers are always looking for any way to help their bottom line," he said.
Oak Parker John Aranza received $125,000 in TIF money from Berwyn, which he's using to help open Autre Monde Café by June. He also owns the Horrorbles memorabilia shop right next door.
Aranza thinks an Oak Park TIF could help unify both sides of Roosevelt and make the street more successful.
"The businesses in the corridor right now don't look at it as one side of the street or the other," he said. "Everybody's just trying to really push forward in making Roosevelt Road viable in a complete sense of the word without having to say, 'Let's go to the Oak Park side or the Berwyn side.' We want it to be something that's universally appealing for visitors who are coming in."