Oak Park 2033: A grand(er) vision

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By Garret Eakin


I was intrigued during the recent Comprehensive Plan gathering dubbed "Envision Oak Park," when John Houseal, our consultant, threw down a challenge to think about what Oak Park would look like 20 years in the future. I was probably the only one naive enough to toss out a smattering of ideas to consider — or laugh at. Regardless, armed with 30 years of living here, my knowledge of architecture, and little more, I offer the following thoughts projected into the future, for your enjoyment:

Known as one of the "seven wonders of Chicago," the el originally served as an exhibition ride for the 1892 Columbian Exposition. The el-evated design kept visitors out of the grimy streets and afforded a panoramic view of the Loop. In 2033, the experience of boarding at any Green Line stop has been designed to heighten the 23-minute trip to Oak Park. First, the special tubular glass car runs once an hour, with the conductor visible within the car, designed to offer unbroken views and comfortable seating. The security cameras create a safe trip and a trained docent gives a running commentary on points of interest, including the river, brick industrial buildings, beautiful church bell towers, United Center, Garfield Park Conservatory, parks and neighborhoods. The intent is to make the short trip educational, safe and an entertaining prelude to encourage visitors to ride the train to Oak Park, and perhaps any area of the city, via CTA.

The most creative and successful solution for bridging the Eisenhower Expressway has been completed, based on a modern interpretation of the historic Ponte Vecchio bridge in Florence. The plan comprises a "fat" bridge structure linking the north and south neighborhoods via an elegant landscaped pedestrian street, lined with shops and restaurants. Underground parking garages at either end provide direct access to vital and popular urban transit. This is not only a place to park and ride the trains to the city but a destination, containing dominant 10-story condominium buildings towering above the bridge. The loft-style apartment structures have spectacular, unbroken sunrise and sundown views. Its success has triggered the developers to add 10 more residential stories to the top. Also, the air-rights development has physically marked Oak Park as a destination on the West Side — a cool place to live.

Our beautiful Art Deco post office on Lake Street, designed by Charles White and built in 1933, outlived its purpose in the Information Age. The property has been leased to the village for one dollar a year and transformed into a Center for Green Initiatives. The rooftop sports a dramatic new community greenhouse for growing vegetables, fruit and flowers year-round. The old mail-sorting bays on the first floor have been converted into a perfect farmers market, complete with loading docks to the south. The historic two-story lobby is now the entrance to the market and a new organic restaurant that welcomes visitors to the space. During the summer, outdoor dining spills out onto the Lake Street sidewalk. The balance of the office space on the second floor accommodates non profit community organizations that support a sustainable beehive of activities.

The old Colt building site on Lake Street has been developed into a modern mixed-use project. The plan links the CTA station to a multilevel parking garage at the building core, buried behind stores that face the streets. Above the retail veneer, two levels of space contain the Frank Lloyd Wright Architecture Museum, which includes the Preservations Trust's entire collections of drawings, furniture, artifacts and files pertinent to Wright buildings in Oak Park, River Forest, Riverside and Chicago. This museum and study center works in concert with the master architect's holdings at MOMA, Columbia and the Getty.

Rising above the stores and museum base, a green roof connects two 25-story towers containing a modern Wright-themed hotel and live/work residences. The intent of this development is to appropriately address the issues of unsustainable property taxes, as well as filling an urban void, bringing more vitality to our commercial streets, and supporting Oak Park as an international destination.

Exhale — it worked! Our property taxes have leveled out, tourism has doubled and one more void in our downtown is now filled.

The surface parking lot on Marion Street next to Carriage Flowers has been repurposed as a wonderful urban park defined by a row of flowering trees, which screen the view to the adjacent parking lot and are designed to transform the space by the seasons. Following the Millennium Park model, this intimate green space is formally landscaped to create the atmosphere of an outdoor "room," complete with ice skating, hot drinks, people-watching and a fire pit, surrounded by heated seating and beautiful lighting. In the warmer months, a water feature has been introduced to the delight of all fountain lovers. A charming kiosk/bar serves drinks and light snacks. The garden adds to the vitality of Marion Street and displays how valuable a well-designed space can be, as opposed to the low value of surface parking.

I hope there is just enough fantasy in these visions to pique your interest. After all, what is life without dreams? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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