The village government spent years buying up prime real estate in downtown Oak Park without a grand plan to do anything with it. This was intended to give government the time and opportunity to some day spur just the right sort of development Oak Parkers would like to see along Lake Street and Westgate from Harlem to Marion.
The problem with this scenario, however, is that during the village's extended time of plan-less-ness, the influential and capital-rich Taxman Corporation has kept busy downtown, buying its own buildings and making its own plans. Now, it has effectively out-flanked the Village of Oak Park.
Taxman owns 65 percent of the property in the Westgate area of downtown, including its Shops of Downtown (Old Navy, Pier One, etc.). This is over three times the amount of property owned by the village in this critical quadrant.
Yes, Oak Park has a master plan now, and we even like it. But, in reality, the board is currently facing two options as it looks to redevelop this area: spend $5 million to buy the Colt building from Taxman under an ill-considered deal some years old, spend who knows how many millions to get other Taxman-owned properties and start sorting out what it wants to build there?#34;or sit down, and enter into serious negotiations with Taxman.
At this point, we believe the village better step up and opt for choice number two and do it quickly. This is not only because Sy Taxman appears to be decisively smarter than village government, but also because he's done a lot of good things for Oak Park, while, of course, doing well for himself. His staff is sensitive to, and willing to closely examine, historic preservation issues on Westgate.
Taxman has suggested the village settle on some sort of redevelopment strategy within the 120 days following June 30. We think that's a reasonable time frame to come up with some sort of tenable plan. The village has a master plan, even if it has its flaws. Any plan that is developed has to include a parking garage which can't wait much longer for an OK. The community concerns with development in that area are already out there.
Also, this a key opportunity for the new board majority to prove that it can be proactive rather than just obstructionist and critical. But, more importantly, this is a chance for the board and new village president to prove they can do something in a reasonable amount of time; perhaps, if we're lucky, even quickly.
Saving OPRF a tile at a time
It is good news that Oak Park and River Forest High School will be taking good care of the lovely painted tiles that line one of its soon-to-be-renovated swimming pools. The tiles are just one small architectural feature of the high school that may go unnoticed, but reminds us that OPRF, even just as a building, has a lot of great history.
This instance, however, also reminds us that there are likely to be many more architectural gems housed within those walls that may periodically be at risk.
We accept that school buildings are always changing and are always in need of modernization, repairs and infrastructure improvements. But we'd also like to suggest that the high school consider always consider historic preservation issues before it does significant renovation work. In a busy school building, that is a perspective necessary to add to the mix of considerations.