Oak Park Plan Commission defers action on Southtown overlay

Group says timing not right without input from comprehensive plan

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By Anna Lothson

Staff Reporter

Being split in two by the Eisenhower Expressway poses a unique challenge for Oak Park's Southtown Business District.

That, and a number of other economic concerns for an area of town most agree could using some sprucing up, was the topic of discussion at Thursday's plan commission meeting.

The village board had asked the commission to give a recommendation related to Southtown's transit-related retail overlay district designation. Should the overlay exist? Should it exist, but be modified? Or shouldn't it be modified?
Those were the choices the group discussed for roughly two hours before deciding against making a formal recommendation for any specific direction.

Plan commissioners came to the consensus that he timing was not right to review the overlay in large part to the comprehensive planning process underway. But a majority of commissioners agreed the overlay should remain.
Revising the possibility of splitting the north and south segments of the district, expediting the process for examining variance requests and evaluating specific uses for the district were all discussed.

C.K. Palani, who owns 817-823 S. Oak Park Ave., which is north of the expressway, was the only business owner to address the plan commission with concerns Thursday evening. He also spoke at a June village board meeting when he said zoning restrictions had left one of his properties vacant since 2007.

Palani requested the plan commission re-evaluate the zoning code to make it easier for landlords to rent out vacant spaces. He's owned the building for 31 years and said he understands the clientele. Vacancies aren't high in the area as only four storefronts are empty, but any vacancy can be tough on a landlord, Palani said.
"We are not attracting people from outside," Palani said. "The stores, they cannot be all retail."

Palani said he's been approached by a hair salon to fill the vacant space, but because another long-standing salon already exists in the building, he said he wouldn't allow another. Palani told the commission he'd rather leave the space vacant than harm his loyal tenant.

He wants the village to change the retail overlay to allow mixed use so he can attract a professional office, which is one use he thinks customers in the area would like to see.

"I'm appealing with good sense. Hopefully it resonates with you," Palani said. "I think zoning as it appears now, definitely interferes with my business."

Prior to commissioners weighing in, Rick Kuner, a local urban planning and transportation expert, was called upon to give a presentation about the history of the area and provide his professional opinion.

Kuner suggested the village start by relating the comprehensive plan to the conversations about overlay district and see how they fit together.

"My opinion is you should fix [the overlay]," Kuner said. "It's not working as well as it should now."

Kuner said the village must keep in mind that the district is not starting from "ground zero" and must approach any solution with that in mind. That includes factoring in stakeholders and encouraging people to express their views on any potential changes.

A "character plan" of Southtown was done in 2002 and adopted in 2003; the document included a set of recommendations based on trends, goals of stakeholders and the economic climate. Despite the vision, Village Planner Craig Failor said commercial traffic never took off.

Failor gave a brief rundown about variance requests in the area and explained that under current zoning codes about 53 percent of South Town spaces are considered legal non-conforming.

Sara Faust, president of Oak Park Development Corporation, said they help property owners understand zoning requirements and agreed with many of the commissioners that there is confusion about the process.
"It's hard to explain why one part of Oak Park is different than another," she said.

During the plan commission's discussion, there was a mix of opinions regarding the purpose of retail overlay districts, zoning restrictions and the benefits or drawbacks of having mixed-used districts.

Commissioners agreed they would not take a formal position Thursday evening, but instead directed the village board to review the concept of overlay districts at it relates to the comprehensive plan again before sending it back for public hearings.

Commissioner Mark Benson, who lives near the Southtown district, agreed with Palani and said the area was not a gateway or destination spot.

"The only people using retail over there are the people who are already there," he said. "To have people who actually use these businesses, you need a mix."

Commissioner Sonny Ginsberg, however, disagreed that South Town is not a destination spot. He said restaurants and bars in the area attract people and he thinks having more would be a benefit.

Ginsberg suggested there were "at least five opinions" among the group, so it was difficult to formulate one conclusion.

Another commissioner, Jeremy Burton, gave the perspective that South Town could use some aesthetic fixes, but suggested the zoning should be left alone. He and Linda Bolte, plan commission chairwoman, suggested the lack of vacancies suggest something is working in the area.

"Why make a bigger issue that it needs to be?" Burton asked. "I didn't get a sense there is a huge problem."

Commissioner Douglas Gilbert agreed something is working, despite the overlay, and said the village should take that into account before deciding if the overlay should be tweaked. He also doesn't see the district as a destination and doesn't see it as a high traffic area.

Email: anna@oakpark.com Twitter: @AnnaLothson

Reader Comments

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Comment Policy

CK Palani from Riverside  

Posted: August 15th, 2013 2:19 PM

"If it ain't broke don't fix it" If 53% already have variances, is the overlay plan broke? You can decide. And what would the vacancy be if there were no variances. The question is, is the transit overlay district designation meeting the outcome that the planners hoped for? Well, I give up. It is clear if for some if they are not personally hurt by something, it must not be hurting anyone.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: August 5th, 2013 6:38 PM

DONE - Did Commissioner Gilbert really say he doesn't see the district (Southland) as a destination and doesn't see it as a high traffic area? If he did, does he always make judgment without providing supporting info about his viewpoint? As a Plan Commissioner, does he use statistics, standards, and opinion of others before reaching his judgments, rather than just his own observations? What are the (retail) destinations in Oak Park? How many cars must pass in a day to considered high traffic? Is a plan commission candidate expected to have some knowledge of the community before being appointed?

Done from Oak Park  

Posted: August 5th, 2013 3:50 PM

"Why make a bigger issue that it needs to be?" Burton asked. "I didn't get a sense there is a huge problem." Commissioner Douglas Gilbert agreed something is working, despite the overlay, and said the village should take that into account before deciding if the overlay should be tweaked. He also doesn't see the district as a destination and doesn't see it as a high traffic area. 'Nuff said.


Posted: August 5th, 2013 3:23 PM

Tired of Taxes; I hope you were kidding about installing the red brick pavers. The others are right; this is another attempt at over-planning. Let's all watch the agenda postings for the Plan Commission. Maybe this time public comment will be seriously considered before this gets out of hand.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: August 5th, 2013 11:17 AM

Some Southtown signs would be helpful particularly at the highway bridge. The sprucing up is coming along, but still needs some more effort..

Property Owner  

Posted: August 5th, 2013 11:15 AM

I am against use overlays. 99.9% of the time they are created by non business people who interject their own skewed vision. They handcuff property owners instead of helping the neighborhoods. A substantially reduced real estate tax overlay would be welcomed however.

Neighbor from Southtown OP  

Posted: August 5th, 2013 7:36 AM

I live in the neighborhood, and frequent the businesses there. While it could use some "sprucing up", the last thing needed in this area is a bunch of stupid bluestone pavers and "vintage feel" street lighting. How about the Village just fixes the horribly disintegrating sidewalks, makes crossing OP Ave safe, and then stays out of the way? Compared to other parts of OP where the Village has "focused and helped", this part of town is doing just fine.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: August 4th, 2013 9:34 PM

I think that the Southland Hway bridge is a slick part of an eclectic shopping place.

Jim from South Oak Park   

Posted: August 4th, 2013 12:37 PM

It it ain't broke, don't fix it. Based on where we spend our money, residents get value from the eclectic shops. They're convenient, the mix is right for us, and some offer great quality. Sounds like it works for landlords, too. Who cares how it fits a definition of a "transit-related overlay." And, its no big deal that the Ike splits it. To subordinate this to a "master plan" is government run amok. (A warning to planners: don't even think of screwing with the Oak Park Bakery!)

Tired of Taxes from Oak Park  

Posted: August 3rd, 2013 11:30 AM

If we could spend a few million dollars of money we don't have on new cobblestone streets, we could make the physical link more apparent between 800 South Oak Park and the area south of the Ike. That would cause a huge increase in sales, etc.

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