By Ken Trainor
The old Lytton's building at the corner of Lake & Forest is gone, ripped apart, to the fascination of my grandsons, who have now added "excavators" to their vocabulary. Like large hungry metallic insects from another planet, they continue to scrape the rubble and remove it, clearing the way for the hole that must be dug for the foundation of an 18-story building to come.
But for the moment, this act of creative destruction has created something marvelous.
No, not something.
The corner of Lake & Forest is … open.
That won't last long, but it's refreshing to behold — just what some opponents of the Albion high-rise were calling for, an alternative vision for downtown development that includes density, yes, but also openness. That corner of Lake & Forest, as it happens, has considerable history attached — which one of several Albion ads on the security fence, to their credit, takes note of: "The corner of Lake and Forest is layered with notable Oak Park history, including Oak Park's first schoolhouse, Temperance Hall, and Lytton's Department Store. Now celebrating the next chapter as a new luxury mixed-use development."
Whether that is a worthy next layer of history remains to be seen, but back in 2005, the village's own consultants, Crandall Arambula, suggested an open plaza on this very corner, so the idea is not without precedent.
The current village administration and board of trustees, as we know, ignored that suggestion, opting for maximum density. They say density will benefit the village more in the long run, and they may turn out to be right. Residents are concerned about taxes, and federal and state government are not exactly flush with grant dollars, so local economic development is a priority. The deal is done and there's no use rehashing it.
Except to point out that the demolition of the old Lytton's building has given us this small window of time to contemplate what it might have looked like if we incorporated some breathing space into the downtown density plan.
Frankly, I'm enjoying what I see — and what I don't see. I'm enjoying the openness. Approaching from the south, what you see is a different kind of high-rise density: The trees of Austin Gardens, visible from Lake Street for the first time in many decades, massed together like a great green wall, a primordial/primeval forest, providing welcome contrast to the hard edges, straight lines and sterile man-madeness of our commercial downtown district.
Trees refresh the eyes and, as an old Irishman once told me, "Green is good for the mind."
An open plaza would be a reflection of the spirit of this village, long committed to openness. At the moment we're celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Open Housing Movement in Oak Park, the right of all people to live where they choose, made official with the passage of our Fair Housing Ordinance in 1968. We welcome residents of every religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, political persuasion, and gender, creating a safe place where all can live together to form an open-minded, open-hearted community.
Even the Density Development Movement proclaims, "We're open for business," though that's an entirely different kind of openness, not so amenable to open space, at least not along Lake Street.
The Albion building will soon usurp this space, but I know one group of residents who would probably argue for openness: the residents of the Vantage building who are about to lose their view.
Others could make, and have made, the argument for open space, including our patron saint of architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright, who was forever designing openness into his structures, playing with walls to increase flow and alleviate the oppressiveness of claustrophobic containment. Wright reportedly even poked a hole in the design of Richard Bock's famous "Horse Show Fountain" which stands in all its porous glory at the main entry to Scoville Park.
Open space is good for the soul.
Two big gangly cranes are now in place at Forest & Lake and the I-beam skeleton will rise soon enough, but while we have this respite, walk by and take a moment to savor the open corner. And take a look at the forest of green high-rises looming just beyond, the softened shapes of the natural world vying with all that man-made rectilinearity.
Maybe it will plant a seed for the future — say, when the 1010 Lake St. building comes up for demolition?
An open space there would be wonderful, don't you think?
Answer Book 2017
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