I took a tour last week with the Downtown Steering Committee, a group of village officials and concerned citizens attempting to put together a more specific plan for Lake Street/Westgate development. Here's my two cents:
Downtown Oak Park has much untapped potential. The possibilities for historic preservation are exciting. So are the possibilities for new development. The problem is, we seem to have an either/or mentality around here. There is the historic preservation crowd (the NLP, give or take a few exceptions and caveats) and the new development crowd (the VMA, give or take a few exceptions and caveats).
At best, we have people saying, "I'm for preservation ... as long as it doesn't get in the way of development" or "I'm for development ... as long as it doesn't have an impact on our history."
As Billy Martin used to say in the old Lite Beer commercials, I feel very strongly both ways. We need balance, and I'm not just being mealy-mouthed in the middle. That should be the firm position of village hall when dealing with new developers. Let them know we favor preservation whenever possible though we know it's not always possible. No lip service?#34;a genuine commitment to achieving an authentic balance. As far as I know, that has never been expressly stated.
Not everything should be saved downtown, but a lot should be. Westgate, for instance, is a gem. If we lose it all, we're nuts and deserve the inevitable consequences of selling our souls to commerce. That doesn't mean all of it has to be saved, but as much as possible. And it needs to become a highlight of the new downtown, not an afterthought.
It would be lovely, for instance, if someone could recreate the Blue Parrot Tearoom in one of those spaces so the area could become a destination. And, as Royce Yeater proposed, a fountain with a little green space around it would be a nice touch.
If we must have Station Street (a proposed north-south mini-street from the Metra station entrance to Lake Street), start it as far to the west as possible. Taxman owns 1145 Westgate and presumably plans to tear it down. If so, the street could start there, then curve through the empty lot to the east of the Colt building, in order to cut down on demolition. Nothing says it has to be straight. If that doesn't work, ditch the idea altogether. It isn't essential. Nothing east of 1145 Westgate should be razed. Nothing.
The Colt building should be saved if the open-air atrium can be restored and if the old art deco facade is mostly intact beneath the Dryvit that currently affronts the Lake Street frontage. A pedestrian walkway from Lake to Westgate with shops on either side featuring art deco facades would be a lovely addition to downtown. That was the original configuration before the building was enclosed in 1950.
I suspect Taxman doesn't really want to invest in that kind of preservation project. On the other hand, he doesn't seem overly eager to do much of anything with the building, so the village should purchase it and actively recruit a developer with preservation priorities.
Along the south side of Lake Street heading east, everything between the Colt building and the large terra cotta building at the corner of Marion and Lake can be bulldozed as far as I'm concerned.
Only one thing in that stretch absolutely must be saved: The oak tree/acorn engraving on the old Thrift building (look straight up from the doorway between 1117 and 1119 Lake St. Remove that and install it as a prominent feature of the new Westgate fountain.
Preservation and development can co-exist downtown. Balance is the key. In fact, it needs to become our official policy.