By Dan Haley
'And now I'd like to turn to Cara to provide the background, the rationalization, hmmmm, the cover for this little rogue operation we're running here tonight at the board table," said Village President Anan Abu-Taleb at Monday night's board meeting.
Well, he didn't actually say those words though it is a fair assessment of what went on as the village board approved a new condo project on Chicago Avenue. That the project, as unanimously approved, no longer looks a thing like the condo project recently OK'd by the Plan Commission is testament to the new day at village hall.
I like it. This time.
Village Manager Cara Pavlicek prepares to speak:
"Well, Mr. President and trustees, as you know, the developers and architects of this project went through our process of public hearings, and their project was approved by the Plan Commission. Last week, the village board asked the architect and the developers whether they would consider slight alterations to the project in consultation with other local architects. And today Mr. Schiess, the architect, presented staff with this somewhat different set of drawings. You might notice that the building looks entirely different and is going to be built from different stuff than the last building. But … uhmm … I believe, in my professional opinion, that this falls under the umbrella of what the Plan Commission approved in that, as you see, it is still a building, it is going to be built on the exact same spot as the last proposal, people will live in the building and there will be dishwashers and floors and some windows. So, sure, why not, let's call it the same!"
OK, I'm paraphrasing the manager a little bit, and possibly interpreting her secret thoughts. But if the village president can now send feuding architects into a room and give them seven days to invent a whole new building with the clear implication that the original building is a non-starter, then I think it is now allowed for a local columnist to interpret secret thoughts.
There are a lot of notable firsts in this development story. One is that a Wednesday Journal columnist actually had some influence on the outcome of a local event. In this case it was Garret Eakin, our freelance architecture columnist in the WJ Homes section once a month. A month ago he wrote unfavorably about the Chicago and Maple proposal which was then making its way through the typical local governing processes. Too big, too heavy, uninteresting, without retail. Not much he liked about John Schiess' original take. And, said Eakin, without a lot of buildable sites, Oak Park needed to raise the architectural bar and build good, interesting buildings.
A week back when the proposal came to the village board, Abu-Taleb did something absolutely audacious and decidedly private sector. He asked Schiess and the two local developers he works for — Jonathon Shack and Paul Zimmermann — if they'd agree to a do-over. Would Schiess sit with his nemesis, Eakin, and other local architects and fully re-imagine this project? With very few options and as locals with other developments in mind, the trio graciously agreed and accepted a one week deadline.
That brought us to Monday night. Radically different drawings. A determined bending of village precedents. The approval of what is, in truth, only a conceptual drawing of a building. And the clearest indication yet that Abu-Taleb is willing to take risks, on the fly, to force collaboration and make things happen on a timeline much more typical of a restaurateur than a bureaucrat.