By Anna Lothson
The plan of investing in streetscape projects to encourage greater retail presence on South Marion Street, officially known as the Pleasant District, may have backfired for the Village of Oak Park.
The roughly $5 million price tag attached to the beautification project won't be wasted, officials said, but it won't match their original vision.
At Monday's village board meeting the issue of implementing a retail overlay district for South Marion Street was brought up again after a 3-3 vote in February. The ordinance left village staff and the Oak Park Plan Commission in disagreement, as the plan commission recommended denying the zoning ordinance.
Following comments by a handful of vocal landlords, backed up by the Oak Park Development Corporation, trustees unanimously voted to strike down a proposal to enforce a retail overlay zone for the district.
Bob Loro, of Loro Auto Works and the first to speak, said the business district is one of the busiest, despite not being packed with retail. The change, he insisted, would reduce the foot traffic and limit the marketability of the properties.
"Please don't change it," he said. "Let us build South Marion and what it can be. Let the market work."
Mike Fox, owner of the Carleton Hotel, said he'd have four properties adversely affected by the change. Multiple properties on the street would be out of compliance and that would scare off their current tenants.
"We don't get the same type of traffic as the Downtown Oak Park District," he said, but that clientele can help promote the shops and restaurants downtown. "We can have uses not permitted in downtown."
Overall, the mixed-use spaces on South Marion create a nice balance, he said.
"I finally got where I like it," Fox said. "I want it to stay as is."
Sarah Faust, president of Oak Park Development Corporation, said while she'd love to see retail in the area, the reality of the economy just doesn't allow for it. She confirmed the amount of traffic does not support a retail overlay district and having it designated as mixed-use would help fill vacant buildings. "[The overlay] is neither friendly for development nor growth," she said.
Other property owners who spoke said there simply haven't been enough retailers interested in the spaces, which appeal more to service-based businesses and those seeking office space in Oak Park. One speaker suggested that having the buildings full is much more valuable than hoping retailers will eventually join the district.
One previous idea for the district was to remove the diverter between North and South Marion streets to help traffic flow into both districts equally. Village Planner Craig Failor noted that one of the goals for Oak Park's master plan is to tie together the business districts.
But as trustees suggested, the current market may not allow for such a vision right now.
Ray Johnson, who previously voted in favor of the overlay, flipped his vote at the meeting, which helped get the needed five. He said after walking the districts again, he realized putting them together was a mistake.
Although he recognized they may be criticized for the streetscape investments, he said the enhancement plans were not simply about retail.
Trustee Bob Tucker agreed, saying it would be unnatural to try and force retail in an area. The district, he noted, can still have retail, but without the overlay, it wouldn't be a requirement. "I would like to see it a retail district eventually," echoed Trustee Colette Lueck, "but the timing is not right for an overlay."