At a recent weekly meeting of the Oak Park steering committee mulling the future of downtown's "superblock," a modest crowd gathered and gave testimony for over two hours on issues ranging from whether to re-open the Marion Street mall, to the historical merit of the Tudor-style buildings on Westgate.
Much testimony re-hashed various past criticism and acclaim for consulting firm Crandall and Arambula's plans for the area, bounded by Harlem Avenue and Marion Street, North Boulevard and Lake Street.
And if the results from an informal survey (see sidebar) presented to attendees is any indication, there's not unanimity of opinion on options available in the landlocked area. (Not surprisingly, however, most everyone agreed that some more parking would be nice).
Following are some comments from the gathering of downtown area property owners, Oak Park residents, and others, on what should be next for the "superblock."
"Fourteen of 19 businesses surveyed are not for opening the mall, four were for opening, and one was neutral. A number of us have gone through the "re-malling" and almost went out of business. There's concern for the safety of kids and pets. There's also a concern that an ill-managed construction process will have a negative economic impact. The problem is the mall looks terrible."
?#34; Mickey Baer, owner of A Matter of Style
"I'm against re-opening the mall. I think it's a unique space in Oak Park. I think it could be a more unique place. It looks pretty dumpy right now. It's a hodgepodge of designs. I think it could be really nice, have more of a garden-like setting."
"The idea of putting more traffic on Lake Street doesn't make sense. I'm concerned about our heritage. Besides buildings, there was a large, black, Baptist community before, that's never been formally recognized. It would be nice to have a promenade in that area where Station Street would go. It would be a place for solace, reflection.
?#34;Gene Reisinger, owner of a dentist's office on Westgate
"I feel a lot of ambivalence about what to do with the mall. Living through the last two times [the mall was opened and re-malled] are bad economic memories. If it remains a mall, it needs a lot of work." On the historical significance of 1145 Westgate: "You can put frosting all over a diaper pail and it's still not a cake."
?#34; Jim Kelly
"I think this plan is caught up in all the rhetoric. It's not being given enough credit for what it's done. The plan challenges us by saying we want to alleviate congestion. We have to add Station Street. To take historic preservation to some kind of extreme and not address this is permanently impairing downtown."
?#34; Jon Hale
"If conceptually, we made this a professional plaza with all offices it would work, but right now it doesn't work for retail. There has to be a plan with better flow and more parking."
?#34; Roger Cameron,
owner of the Prairie Bread Kitchen
"I look at downtown Oak Park and I think it has incredible potential. When I look around, I feel like people don't want change. There's nothing I could see that's sentimental about it. It's time for a change."
"I think Station Street is something we really need to pay attention to. Westgate is a dead end place. It didn't seem particularly safe because it was so deserted."
"Downtown Oak Park has not taken a position on re-opening the Marion Mall. We have endorsed the [downtown] plan as it stands. It's been a long time coming to have Marion opened. Tenants want to be by vehicular traffic."
?#34;Mike Fox, president of the Downtown
Oak Park business association
"Nothing is being said against progress. What is being said is against the idea that progress always has to be done one way. We can't just say these are old buildings. It's our heritage. Take advantage of the type of feeling we have; we have a small town feel."
"I'm impressed by Westgate's inappropriateness in Oak Park. When we talk about the feel of Oak Park, it's not those [Tudor] facades. You really have to make an effort to go there. I'd like to see us pay attention to our tax base. We have to move ahead with development. We're stalled terribly."
"Downtown has deteriorated because the village has not paid attention. In Oak Park we've lost our sense of history, our sense of beauty."
"I do urge you to pay homage to Oak Park's architectural heritage. However, don't be held hostage by historic preservationists. There's no vitality to the Marion Street business district. You have to do something. Don't study it to death, don't talk to death, don't plan it to death."
"We can blend new development with wonderful historically significant buildings. We have a wonderful opportunity to blend a sense of place."
architect for the Taxman Corporation