By Anna Lothson
Oak Park officials have been clear for some time where they stand on any potential expansion of the Eisenhower Expressway: Keep the Ike within its current footprint.
In a recent goal-setting session, village trustees confirmed the group's commitment to staying on top of the issue. This includes ensuring the Illinois Department of Transportation understands how communities like Oak Park feel about the proposed plans that involve possibly adding two lanes in each direction and shifting the center, left-sided exit ramps to the right. Bottom line: they don't like Ike as IDOT envisions its future.
Taking matters into its own hands, Oak Park is looking at what buildings or land could be designated historically relevant so any expansion plan might be effectively prevented. Trustees approved three motions to do just that.
An architectural survey will be conducted along the I-290 Expressway Corridor and staff has been directed to prepare a National Register Determination of Eligibility for the 1000 block of South Harvey Avenue. The final motion appropriates $2,600 to continue using online historical resource survey software to help the village in its efforts.
A proposed Harvey Avenue historical district includes 12 properties known as the Braucher/Duff Development.
"I think all three steps are well advised as this continues and the possibility of the expansion of the Ike is in front of us. … We need to price this on all fronts," said Trustee Bob Tucker at the board's July 1 meeting. He referred to legal and tactical aspects that the village should not ignore.
"You can literally, by doing this, throw up roadblocks," Tucker said.
During the same time that IDOT has been reviewing how to revamp the 1950s-era expressway, which transportation officials suggest has outlived its lifespan, Oak Park has been looking at the historical significance of the land along the Ike. Although not all of IDOT's plans involve expanding the expressway, and plans are still subject to change, trustees agree Oak Park must prepare for any possible outcome.
Although the timing of the request aligns with the current Ike discussions, said Doug Kaarre, Oak Park's historical planner, talks about designating these areas along the corridor have been in the works for years. He explained to the group that federal regulations dictate that any federal dollars being used for projects such as the Eisenhower Expressway expansion must look at the historical significance of the area.
"Survey projects often are a reaction to a perceived or potential threat to those resources; in this particular case, the proposal to expand or alter the I-290 Eisenhower Expressway was the guiding factor for the timing of the project, though it should not detract from the validity of conducting a survey in this area," Kaarre wrote in a report.
But simply committing to work with the Illinois Historical Preservation Commission, as mentioned in one of the approved proposals, can trigger the need for national review. Doing so could throw a kink in IDOT's plans, Kaarre said.
IDOT officials have said during past presentations that they are taking into account any historical relevance, but Oak Park isn't relying on that and has said it's important to review the historical significance on its own.
Research, Kaarre said, revealed that the federal highway process exempts certain restrictions related to the left-sided exit ramps and IDOT's plans, which makes the discussion about any historical relevance of Oak Park's ramps less significant. An agreement between the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation exempts the interstate highway system.
The areas surrounding the ramps, however, may play a key role. He emphasized to the board that IDOT's most recent plans "appear they are looking to expand the expressway into the ditch," but he was unsure which areas yet. Plans still do appear to focus on the Harlem Avenue and Austin Boulevard ramps, which would have significant impact on surrounding areas, Kaarre said.
In his report to the board, Kaare said once an area has been determined to be eligible for listing on the National Register by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, it triggers a review process. This could force IDOT to alter any plans that pose negative impacts to any historic resources.
"If successful, this determination, along with the Hulbert and Hogan Homes subdivision determinations, would provide coverage of historic properties along the entire length of the expressway," according to Kaarre.
Conducting historical surveys for such projects is nothing new for Oak Park. In 2010, according to the planner's report, former Village Manager Tom Barwin requested that the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission look into preservation options for the center exit ramps along the expressway. The village learned that architectural surveys were the most "feasible and effective approach" to understanding what resources would be impacted by an expansion or alteration of the Ike.
According to the report, "This will afford the village the opportunity of providing historic resources with recognition and protection well in advance of any formal plans that may be released by IDOT."