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In a marathon five-hour meeting Monday, a split Oak Park village board gave approval for ambitious plans to reinvent Marion Street, just south of the Green Line el tracks. However discussion of a similar redo of Oak Park Avenue was delayed until, at least, this fall.
Trustees voted 4-3 late Monday night, paving the way for a roadway project on Marion, from South Boulevard to Pleasant, which will include brick streets, granite sidewalks and a canopy of decorative lights. Village officials estimate that the project, including water and sewer replacement, will cost $5.5 million, with work starting in the near future and wrapping up by Thanksgiving.
Those voting in favor argued the project would tie the 100 block of South Marion to its neighbor to the north, and would help spur private investment in the street. On the other side, trustees John Hedges, Bob Tucker and Adam Salzman said the project seemed too expensive, with the benefits unclear. Tucker and Salzman were attending their first formal board meeting after being elected last month.
"It kind of boils down to brick-it and they will build, and I don't necessary buy into that 100 percent" Tucker said. "What matters most is what's in the stores, but I also fully recognize that we're talking about a chicken and an egg here, that you need the right environment and setting to attract those stores."
About four years ago, Oak Park invested $6 million to tear up the former pedestrian mall on North Marion, fitting it with heated sidewalks and a fountain. Officials believe the project was a boon, leading to investment in properties and filling up vacant storefronts.
So in keeping with Oak Park's "downtown master plan," village hall wanted to continue sprucing up the community's main shopping district. A majority of the board expressed some doubts that investing millions in one block would bring a similar return. But Trustee Ray Johnson and President David Pope urged their colleagues to green-light the plan.
Johnson compared rejecting the project to states, such as Wisconsin and Florida, turning their nose up at federal dollars to build high-speed rail lines. Oak Park was getting prices that were some 48 percent cheaper than expected to overhaul both South Marion and Oak Park Avenue from Lake to Pleasant.
"That is penny wise and pound foolish, and if we're getting prices like we're seeing now, at such a discount, I think now is the time to capitalize on this opportunity," he said.
Pope said he'd much rather use tax increment financing dollars to gussy up streets, rather than giving payouts to developers. He pointed out that the added features only cost 27 percent more than a plain street, but they're expected to last much longer.
"I'm not a huge fan of writing big checks to developers," he said.
The village board decided to hold off on similar streetscape improvements on Oak Park Avenue which would have brought the total bill to $14.3 million. Trustees said they wanted to wait and see what happens with several development projects before figuring out where to go with Oak Park Avenue.
Currently, there's a balance of about $4.7 million in cash for the village to use toward the street project. The village was originally considering taking on debt to pay for the more expansive street work. But after trustees scaled the repairs back, Chief Financial Officer Craig Lesner said he'll search for ways to bankroll improvements without paying interest.
Trustees who voted no expressed reservations about funding the street fix up with an I.O.U. And John Hedges thought that other projects should get precedence, such as similar street improvements the village has eyed for Lake Street.
"We have parking garages to build, and we have choices to make in terms of what's going to benefit this downtown area the most," Hedges said. "And we have priorities that have been set by the master plan, and this doesn't rise to the priority of other projects."
Officials said they put South Marion at the top of the list, though, because the street is in need of resurfacing, and the underground utilities date back more than 100 years.
Salzman said that it felt like the plans were being rushed, and pointed to comments from village staff that the street isn't in "emergency" need of repair.
"It doesn't sound like there's an imminent disaster," he said.
Members of the South Marion business association urged the village board to approve the project, saying that their board voted with a "super majority" in favor of the plans. On the other side, some members of The Avenue business association expressed some doubts because of the high costs and possible harm to businesses while construction takes place.