It makes sense really: a village, wrestling with downtown development issues, taking a tour of surrounding suburbs to see what other communities have done with their downtowns.
Which is why several village hall staff members, including Village Manager Carl Swenson, and a couple of trustees, Village President David Pope and Martha Brock, met outside village hall last Thursday morning, boarded a park district mini-bus and, despite a steady drizzle, set off for a day of sightseeing.
The tour guides were Oak Parker Nick Kalogeresis, who heads the Main Street program for the National Trust for Historic Preservation (Illinois) and Donna Harris, a historic preservation consultant who formerly worked for the Main Street program. Royce Yeater, executive director of the NTHP and also an Oak Park resident, was on hand for generous kibbutzing.
The National Trust started and still runs the Main Street Redevelopment program, which attempts to dovetail downtown revitalization and a historic preservation ethic. Yeater calls it "asset-based economic development"?#34;in other words, don't bulldoze your historic assets in order to bring in the big national retail chains.
A basic tenet of the Main Street credo is that you don't have to do that. If you start revitalization from the bottom up, you'll create a situation where the chains not only want to move in, but they'll adapt to the historic buildings already present.
The idea for this bus trip came out of a series of public discussions on downtown redevelopment being held at village hall, but Yeater and other historic preservationists have been trying to get the Main Street model on the village's radar since last winter when the Crandall-Arambula plan suggested the distinct possibility that half of the old Westgate "Tudor village" could be demolished to make way for new development.
In addition to the bus tour, Yeater sent the village a letter offering an "assessment process," much shorter in duration than Crandall-Arambula, which would provide an alternative "diagnostic."
Swenson wonders if a 7-day diagnostic is realistic.
"In Oak Park the planning process is very inclusionary. It would take much longer than seven days."
Yeater says the diagnostic would be just the first step. "In Oak Park," he acknowledged, "grass roots is a very long rooting process."
The first leg of the trip provided ample time for wonkish discussion of Special Service Areas and other sources of funding, bottom-up vs. top-down models of administration, and whether a Main Street model would fit Oak Park's peculiar configuration which features 11 or 12 separate business districts, depending on who's counting.
The Main Street crew noted that their model had been applied everywhere from Boston to Forest Park. It is adaptable, but works best when it starts at the grassroots level so local business owners feel a sense of "ownership."
Our first stop this day was Market Square in Lake Forest, the inspiration, according to press reports of the 1920s, for Oak Park's Westgate. Lake Forest is a "planned community," but has not adopted the Main Street model. It doesn't need to because of the town's concentrated wealth.
But it did offer proof that large chains like The Gap, Williams-Sonoma, and Talbot's are, indeed, willing to fit into existing historic buildings. Flexibility, of course, runs in both directions. Talbot's now fills two storefronts.
Swenson notes that Lake Forest has a very different history from Oak Park. "They never had to face the fear of economic disinvestment," he said. "Oak Park has overcome a lot. Lake Forest didn't go through that."
Market Square wraps around a lovely village green with a fountain, brick-paver sidewalks, diagonal parking for cars and a Metra stop immediately adjacent.
"Can you promise us Westgate will look like this?" Swenson quipped.
No, Yeater said, but he thought a fountain would definitely improve the Westgate streetscape. He compares Lake Forest's downtown with Evanston, where economic development has spun "out of control"?#34;highrises sprouting everywhere. In Lake Forest, there is a strict historic preservation ordinance, which includes the main business district.
Back on the bus, the conversation jumps from town to town. Yeater describes Galena's central business district as "a place where you can buy anything you don't need." Harris says Long Grove used to be the same, but they're beginning to adopt a Main Street approach.
LaGrange has a booming downtown thanks to the village acquiring the "Ogden triangle" through eminent domain. Harris noted they were an early Main Street town and have an active Chamber of Commerce. But they also have a very persistent, development-minded village government.
"The key is a sustained strategy," said Swenson. "You have to have a sustained focus. The planning and investment cycle is sometimes longer than the political cycle."
"That leads to ad hoc planning," Pope agreed. "You have to get beyond the political cycles."
The discussion touched on business retention, the right mix of chains and independents, and making your downtown "an incubator of entrepreneurship."
Next up is Libertyville, one of Main Street's most successful programs, ongoing for 15 years. On the outskirts, Libertyville is all strip malls and sprawling car dealerships with large, inflated purple gorillas, but they also have a thriving "main street," aka Milwaukee Avenue, with plenty of restaurants, "mom & pop" independents, and a sprinkling of chains.
Main Street offered free design assistance and a small pot of incentive dollars to help with rehab. Slowly, the movement caught on and began to spread until it reached a "tipping point." Now most of the old Victorian buildings are renovated. Some of the "hobby businesses" have become so successful that they've expanded.
Even the alleys have been developed into quaint pedways leading to parking lots behind the storefronts.
After lunch and a long drive back to Oak Park, Swenson departed and Deputy Village Manager Pete Dame joined the tour. Trustee Greg Marsey met the group in Hinsdale, our next destination?#34;following a quick drive-through of LaGrange with its "really nice mix of retail and community support services," according to Yeater.
Hinsdale is another community demonstrating what a lot of money and planning can do. Though they've managed to tear down fully a third of their housing stock and replaced it with "starter castles" and "mansionettes," the town has managed to preserve its charming downtown business district.
As opposed to Lake Forest's "square" and Libertyville's "spine," Hinsdale's downtown is a "cross," a couple of blocks either side of a central intersection.
A Cosi cafe operates comfortably inside the Metra station, and one finds a cozy mix of national retail and small art galleries and boutiques. Fuller's Hardware has gotten progressive and expanded into home furnishings.
Harris describes this as "a homegrown downtown. They really don't need Main Street." The lush streetscape plantings are particularly nice here, as are the alley pedways.
Yeater points out the Gap Women, located in an old bank building.
"It's a poster for adaptive reuse," says Marsey. "It blows the concept of not fitting modern retail into old buildings right out of the water. It's nice to see the proof." He stops to ask a shopper what she thinks of the area, and as if on a preservationist's cue, the woman mentions that the town has successfully thwarted a developer who wanted to build a new 80,000-square-foot building at one end of the district.
"You want change, but the right change," she said, prompting Yeater to reply, "Well put."
The final stop is Elmhurst, where new Village Trustee Elizabeth Brady joins the group. Like the other towns, this downtown is located near the Metra station. Like Libertyville, the district forms a long spine for several blocks along York Road. It is also a Main Street community.
The challenge for Elmhurst was its proximity to the Oak Brook Mall, so they had trouble attracting national retail tenants. Instead, they've had success attracting national restaurants, said Kalogeresis. In addition, two highly regarded destination hobby shops and a magic shop give them a niche specialization.
The town has a generous facade rehab grant program in place to encourage improvements on the building stock downtown, which Yeater admits is "historically not great." Some businesses have worked wonders. Others are lagging. Main Street encourages and educates, says Kalogeresis. It doesn't get heavy-handed.
"People don't always do the right thing," Yeater said, "but you don't kick them out of the program."
The former city hall is now a plaza with a fountain and a Chipotle. Willis and Shirley Johnson have played a role here with their rehab of the York Theatre, just as they did with the Lake in Oak Park.
Harris describes Elmhurst as a "promotion-heavy downtown," which holds lots of special events to attract shoppers. There's also a parking garage with successful retail built into the ground floor.
"Elmhurst hasn't focused on design as much as they could have," says Kalogeresis, "but they've still come a long way."
Oak Park's downtown has come a long way as well. The question on the minds of village officials, developers, preservationists, and residents remains, "Where is it heading?"