By Dan Haley
I am sitting here enraged by news that Whiteco, the Merrillville, Indiana-based company, is attempting to sell Whiteco, the butt-ugly apartment building on Harlem Avenue. At least I'm trying hard to be enraged. It feels like I should be. Enraged. Furious. Really mad. Certainly decidedly annoyed.
So why, then, am I bemused? Mind you I'm talking bemused in a really hard, tough as toenails, sort of way. Don't mess with me now because I think Whiteco is the ultimate bemusing example of an Oak Park detonation of every well-intentioned, not-nearly-as-smart-as-we-think-we-are, who-died-and-made-you-an-architect, TIF-playground, politically-egomaniacal, newspaper-failing morass we've ever pulled off.
Simply, Oak Park deserves Whiteco. We deserve to have it sit there in all its Moscow concrete monstrosity for the next 75 years, or as long as is the natural life of concrete monstrosities.
Defenders of Whiteco, or Oak Park Place Apartments as it is now actively marketed, will point to Trader Joe's, allegedly the highest volume Trader Joe's in all the land. And it is true that when you are actually inside that store, you can forget for a moment that above you is the twin of the Pravda headquarters, that below you is what used to be a perfectly good surface parking lot that Oak Park gave up too cheap, that you parked in a too tall garage which is already crumbling.
But what a good deal on crab legs!
Further, Whiteco defenders will say its high-end apartments — $1,240 for a 478-square-foot studio, $2,550 for a 1,267-square-foot two bedroom — have leased up pretty well after a somewhat slow start, probably owing to the economy. I might lease an apartment there, too, just so I don't have to look at the exterior.
The reality is, though, that Oak Park had the ultimate control of this project since the village owned all the land, set the specifications, solicited the bids and had money on the table. And through bad staffing and worse politics, this is what we wound up with. A bad building with unfavorable and still too cloudy finances.
Unfavorable from the village's perspective, that is. Given the splendid entrepreneurial history of Mr. Dean White — yes, he of the Forbes billionaire list (actually tied with Oprah one year) — I'm thinking Whiteco Residential will come out of this deal just fine. The company, of which Whiteco Residential is but a small, spun-off part, has humble roots decades ago as a billboard company in Indiana. This branch of the tree focuses on building luxury apartment buildings. There are only six of them currently listed on the company website. Two are in Connecticut. The others stretch from Florida to Virginia to La Quinta, California.
And now, with the economy finally turning brighter, Whiteco's Oak Park building went on the market just last week. Assuming it sells at a good price, and I imagine it will, it is a good sign of Oak Park's economic vigor and appeal. There's no upside in wishing this project ill at this point. In fact, Whiteco execs get points for having survived the endless and absurd process Oak Park put them through. And the building they first proposed, while jumbo, was better looking than the stark, grey façade we wound up staring endlessly at.
The only question is whether we learned anything from the enraging, now bemusing, spectacle of the Whiteco half-decade? Maybe. While there are always critics, the highrise planned at Lake and Forest is stunningly better looking and it resulted — if it ever gets built — from a more rational and public process.
Not perfect. But better.