By Anna Lothson
The Oak Park village board discussed two interrelated projects that have one key difference: one may never get done.
Trustees spent two hours Monday evening vetting through two presentations, the first relating to the Harlem underpass phase one study report — an Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) project that dates back more than a decade.
The project, which includes an option to lower Harlem Avenue, fix the underpass viaduct and reconstruct Harlem Avenue to allow better motor and pedestrian traffic flow, is supported by village staff and trustees, but they are skeptical it will ever happen.
The second project, related to reconstruction of South Boulevard between Harlem Avenue and Marion Street, a $1.9 million project, is in the village's control. The reconstruction involves reviewing streetscape options and tackling underground utility work. Oak Park was able to secure a $1.1 million grant for the project, leaving roughly $771,000 to be covered by the village.
Trustees reviewed a presentation regarding the draft plan for the Harlem underpass study that was submitted and reviewed by IDOT. The purpose of Monday's meeting was to provide feedback for the final plan. IDOT specifically sought comments regarding pedestrian-orientation design changes and improvements.
Though the project has been on the state's radar for more than a decade, it would require a major investment from the Federal Highway Administration and a joint commitment for the three communities sharing the right-of-way (Forest Park, Oak Park and River Forest). The Oak Park village board agreed in March that a project to improve the underpass was needed, but the necessary federal government commitment has officials skeptical.
If the project ever happens, however, Oak Park would contribute 50 percent of the total match and River Forest and Forest Park would chip in 25 percent each. Those contributions would add up to 20 percent of the total costs or about $1 million.
Trustees focused their comments, Monday evening, on the pedestrian aspect of the Harlem underpass and agreed the rusty, dark and uninviting design needs to be addressed. Conversations also focused on how to develop Harlem Avenue.
"How do you plan a development with a developer when you don't know what you can offer them?" Trustee Colette Lueck asked. "I don't quite understand what we can do as a village based on the plans we've seen."
Because Harlem Avenue is a federal highway, Oak Park can't use federal funds without involving IDOT. Regardless, trustees agreed, it's important to at least move forward with the phase one study to determine the project's feasibility.
"I would support personally going forward as far as we can go," Village President Anan Abu-Taleb said.
After about an hour of discussion on community character, pedestrian enhancement, and site development, trustees didn't formalize a clear direction on how to move forward, but they did agree it's important for Oak Park to allow the phase one study to occur.
The second part of the evening focused on the $1.9 million South Boulevard project, which will be funded mostly by the Transportation, Community and System Preservation Program grant. Jim Budrick, village engineer, reviewed the grant and current proposals with the board, but no formal plans are ready to be approved yet.
Overall, plans for that project include roadway improvements, parking improvements, bicycle parking and possibly some streetscaping. There was some debate about whether the village should use bluestone sidewalks and brick pavers again (like Marion Street) or take the cheaper pavement option.
Trustees agreed they wanted to see a "menu of options" before staff moves forward with design plans for South Boulevard. The board discussion Monday evening was held primarily to give staff direction and allow the village to proceed with the phase one engineering and approve making use of the $1.1 million grant. Although the South Boulevard project has the potential to conflict with any Harlem Avenue reconstruction, Lueck suggested the board move forward with the project because it needs to be done now.
"I think we move forward with things that are in our control," she said. "You can't plan on uncertainty and things you can't control. You can only rely on what you can control."