By Anna Lothson
The economic downturn has played a key role in the retail vs. non-retail debate, but a July 11 zoning board decision tipped decidedly toward the latter.
The Avenue business district in Oak Park has a handful of vacant retail spaces. Soon, however, the former Flybird store at 719 Lake St. will be home to a dentist's office — a decision that was met with mixed reactions.
The applicants, John and Timothy Sheehan on behalf of the dentist, are thrilled to offer more space to their client. But Brandy Masoncup, president of the Avenue Business Association, doesn't support allowing non-retail in the retail overlay district.
The request to allow the dental office into a streetfront space had to go before Oak Park's zoning board, and the resulting 4-1 vote allows the non-retail use. Without a variance, the retail overlay district prohibits general office uses located within 50 feet of any street line. "We are happy because we are having tough times too," Timothy Sheehan said. "We're ecstatic about being able to help accommodate our client."
The Sheehans, who represent a number of retailers in the district, said the dental office will be a positive addition to the community. He said they were proud of building the front entrance to help get Flybird in the space, but they're also glad to be filling a vacancy. The space, he noted, used to be a doctor's office before it was turned into a retail overlay district.
"Economic times are not good," Sheehan emphasized, "and variances make it even rougher for us."
Masoncup suspects the zoning board approved the request because of the hardship argument. The Sheehans could not accommodate the dental office in its current space, so the client decided that moving to the Lake Street property would be ideal.
Nonetheless, she doesn't support disrupting the "retail clustering" on the street.
"I'm very disappointed in the decision," Masoncup said. "I was disappointed that the commission did not understand what the purpose of a retail overlay was."
Many studies, she said, discuss the benefits of grouping retail together to attract shoppers. When those shops are broken up by office space there is less traffic traveling between stores, Masoncup said, comparing it to successful shopping malls.
"I think that particular dentist office is a very good business," she said. "I just don't think it should be in the middle of the second-largest shopping district in Oak Park."
She explained that retail businesses can become isolated because they become surrounded by office spaces and are unable to create the synergy necessary to attract more customers. Masoncup said having retail close together benefits the community, business and landlords.
She also didn't think the hardship argument was compelling since the building has only been vacant since February. Allowing more time might have brought in a retailer.
"It makes it tough on retail," Masoncup said about the gap an office creates. "It's more like an island, which makes the property less desirable — at least from a retail perspective."
Similar debates are taking place about a nearby property at the former Border's space at 1144 Lake St. where a medical clinic is seeking to move. That issue has been continued by the zoning board to August.
Last month the village board voted to strike down a proposal to enforce a retail overlay zone on South Marion Street, aka the Pleasant Street District. The matter initially received a split vote in February, which later turned into a 7-0 vote against implementing the zone. Trustees noted the foot traffic in the Marion Street area is different from neighboring retail districts.
Mike Bruce, village zoning officer, said the variance will be ratified Aug. 1 at the next regularly scheduled zoning meeting. It does not need board approval and will go into effect then if no changes are made.