By Anna Lothson
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.