Taxman gives ultimatum on Colt building

? Developer tells the village to put up or pay up on the long-delayed property between Westgate and Lake Street.

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By KATHARINE GRAYSON

In an ultimatum backed by property titles, profitable long-term leases and legalese, the Taxman Corporation told the village board Thursday: If you want to redevelop the Westgate area of downtown, either work with us, or buy us out.

Taxman officials' comments came during a joint discussion on a "put-call" agreement the village board approved several years ago. The agreement essentially calls for the village to either accept a redevelopment proposal from Taxman for the site of the Colt building, 1146 Westgate Ave., or purchase the parcel from Taxman for $5 million.

The company and the board have previously agreed to extend the deadline by which the village must make a decision to redevelop or buy the site numerous times. The Colt building has entrances on both Westgate and Lake Street and currently houses Quizno's sandwich shop and several offices.

The current deadline on the agreement is June 30. At last week's meeting, Sy Taxman said he wants to know by that date if the village board is willing to work with him on crafting a redevelopment concept. If a consensus can't be reached, he told the board he will exercise the agreement's "put" clause, and the village will have to buy the property.

"Our business life is based on, in part, our ability to deliver what we promised," he said, adding that the corporation's bank has started to express concerns about the years-long delay. "We've reached a critical point, and we must get some solid expression from the board that we're the group that will work on this. We can no longer wait on the sidelines. We're a major stakeholder?#34;not just financially, but emotionally."

Taxman said he believes that within the 120 days after June 30, the village and the company "should be able to come up with a mutually agreeable plan."

And any such plan would likely not pertain to the Colt building alone. In the years since the original put-call deal was signed, Taxman purchased an office building at 1145 Westgate Ave., directly across from the Colt property. That building, along with "any other contracts" regarding property in the area, could also be sold at cost to the village if the board decides not to work with the corporation, Taxman said.

Both the 1146 and 1145 Westgate properties are adjacent to the Taxman-owned Shops of Downtown development, which includes the retail stretch on Harlem housing The Gap, TGI Friday, Old Navy, and others, as well as stores on Lake Street, including Pier One.

In total, the company owns 64 percent of the property situated in the quadrant of downtown bounded by Harlem Avenue and Marion Street, and Lake Street and South Boulevard. The village owns 18 percent of property, while other independent parties own 17 percent.

Taxman says some Westgate buildings worth keeping

Taxman officials said they are open to exploring a number of options for development in the area. One idea presented last week included a seven-story condominium and retail complex at the Colt building site, as well as development of retail space at the 1145 Westgate parcel. The concept also included construction of a parking garage at the village-owned surface lot on North Boulevard, directly east of the Shops of Downtown.

That concept was in some key ways at odds with the village's recently-approved master plan for downtown Oak Park. The plan, created by the consulting firm of Crandall and Arambula, envisioned for the same quadrant: A new 800-car garage adjacent to the Old Navy and TGI Friday building, a new street running from the transit station on North Boulevard though Westgate to Lake Street, and a re-opened Marion Street mall.

The Crandall and Arambula plan's proposed new "Station Street" idea would require demolition of some Tudor-style buildings along Westgate that some argue have historical significance. The street has been put on the Landmark Preservation Council of Illinois' (LPCI) list of the top ten most endangered historic places.

Taxman said the concept of a new street would not be completely off the table for them, but expressed some reservations.

"We would not eliminate it. We'd look at alternatives. It may not be in the exact location to avoid [tearing down] buildings of real historic significance," he said.

On the historic merit of the Colt building itself, Taxman said he currently doesn't see any "justification for preserving that building," but added that he would be willing to hear arguments for leaving it standing.

Overall, Taxman's architect, Joe Antunovich?#34;who is also president of the LPCI?#34;said he believes there are buildings on Westgate that must be preserved.

"If we're successful, Westgate can be the hottest part of Oak Park," he said. "There can be actual activity in these historic buildings."

One suggestion made by Crandall and Arambula that company officials expressed the strongest reservations about was placing a mixed-use parking garage on what is now the surface lot adjacent to TGI Friday's. The garage would abut the east side of those buildings, a situation that would irk both TGI Friday and Old Navy, said Taxman President Tim Hague.

"At minimum, this would mean completely re-building the interior of that building. It would be problematic in terms of a cost/benefit analysis. I have a concern that we would be taking away some of the most successful retail in downtown," Hague said. Those retailers also have long-term, profitable leases, Taxman said, adding that Crandall and Arambula incorrectly assumed that the company could, "arbitrarily terminate leaseholder interest."

During the study session, board members asked questions and gave general suggestions, including that independent businesses be incorporated into retail space and that "green" environmental design potentially be used. Trustee Geoff Baker also expressed interest in possibly seeing a pedestrian mall built at the west end of Westgate.

Village President David Pope said on Friday that the board's next step will be to consider if there are any viable alternatives to working with Taxman in an executive session.
CONTACT: kgrayson@wjinc.com

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