By Anna Lothson
Years ago, the Lakota Group was tasked with preparing an urban design plan for Oak Park's Arts District. Following a tour of the district, 18 points were noted as areas for improvement.
They included unifying the district through streetscape and lighting, signage updates, addition of a gathering space, CTA station enhancements, landscaping upgrades, improving the gateway at Austin and creating an overall sense of vibrancy.
That was 2007. Five years later, much of this village-approved plan has been left by the wayside. Like the rest of Oak Park, this district weathered the economic storm, but one factor created a unique situation that some village trustees say make it time to stop talking about plans and take action.
"This has gone on for too long," Trustee Ray Johnson said in a recent phone interview. The Arts District on Harrison Street hasn't received adequate attention, he said. "It's overdue for some really solid action planning."
The factor that makes it unique is the large chunk of parcels on Harrison Street that remain cradled in the hands of Chris Kleronomos, despite being tangled in foreclosure after he fell behind on a $3.5 million construction plan.
The facade restoration of 201 Harrison St., which collapsed in 2011, is complete, but the interior remains under construction. Although Kleronomos' properties prevent momentum from developing, trustees suggest a handful of low-cost options could mediate the situation as the vacant property woes work themselves out. A court-appointed receiver and a bank remain involved in the next steps.
Johnson said whether it is talking with financial institutions, building owners or business owners, there's work to be done that can start immediately during this interim period. He thinks getting moderate amounts of capital into the district can help immensely.
Simple tasks such as fixing planters, lights, and aesthetic features that have been neglected in recent years are a quick fix that everyone would agree could help, according to Johnson and Trustee Adam Salzman.
"We're not talking excessive costs here," Johnson said. "It's the broken-window theory."
Once the Kleronomos properties transfer to a new owner, the future of those buildings and the other nearby vacancies can be discussed. It's unclear what the time frame is for ownership transfer since the for-sale signs in the building's windows have been pulled.
Laura Maychruk, president of the Arts Business District, said she heard there was an error in the initial listing of the properties, but was unsure of other details. As far she knows, however, the bank does not have control of the properties yet.
Maychruk said she's open to any conversations with village leaders and gladly would welcome any assistance the village could provide, calling the area "a shoestring district."
What she would like to see from the village is implementing Lakota's plan as approved by the village board. While mindful of the poor economic timing when the plan passed, Maychruk said the village has the concepts in place to move forward.
Johnson suggests that having an informal public meeting in the arts district could be a good starting point for conversation, an action Maychruk said has never happened. In turn, the village may determine how to reevaluate how to involve itself in the district —without overstepping.
"The first step is getting an agreement to make the district more viable," Johnson said. "We need to make sure we are harnessing that."
Such a tactic shouldn't be unique to Harrison Street, he noted, as it could be implemented in any of the village's other 12 business districts that have an array of vacancies.
"The village board can play a more active role in supporting the district in its budget," Johnson said. "I'm not saying it's easy. This isn't easy. But at the same time we're making it harder not giving the full attention it needs."
Salzman agreed incorporating the business districts into the budgeting process is "a bit disjointed" because trustees often approve amendments to the budget after it's passed.
The private sector, he explained will have to deal with the delinquent landlord, but it's up to the village to fix up the street's look. By pooling the ideas of the business owners, the village's business development department and Oak Park Development Corporation, he thinks Harrison Street could be thriving again.
"It's the very definition of blight. It has several different vacancies," he explained about the district. "It's frustrating because there is such potential."
In recent years, he thinks discussions about planning have outweighed progress.
"We get so focused on very ambitious sorts of complicated processes," he said. "There are very simple things that we could do. We need to come back to earth a bit."
Evaluating development goals and getting back to the village's original plans for the district is needed sooner rather than later, Salzman said, and some of that may need to come directly from the village's budget so it doesn't issue more debt.
"These are things we really need to face up to," Salzman said. "We need to realize there are significant restrictions of tools," Salzman said, suggesting the need to be done in a more modest and targeted mode.
The Wonderwall Music Shoppe and Emporium, the most recent business leaving the district, packed up shop last weekend. The store isn't closing; rather it's relocating to a place closer to the owners' home, according to Maychruk. She confirmed Alabasta, a beauty salon and sustainable beauty product business that was housed next door, will be moving in.
Still, the handful of vacancies on the street, including one building where Johnson said the owner is leasing the rooftop for cell antennas to get tax breaks but has not filled the space. The village passed a vacant property ordinance about two years ago mainly for single-family homes, but Johnson said the case of Harrison Street, along with issues in other business districts, may support revisiting the idea of a commercial vacancy ordinance.
"I don't want to suggest it's a major issue, except for the fact so much property is languishing," Johnson said. "We don't have a real strong language plan. We need to come to terms with that in some shape or form."