Architecture and our collective health in Oak Park

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By Garret Eakin

Architecture columnist

We seem to have come to a threshold in our economy and its resultant impact on the built environment. Following years of little local development or private investment, we are starting to hear the iPhone ring. Buyers are realizing that the bottom is being defined. Taking a loss on the sales side can be made up on the purchase with interest rates at an all-time low. We are sensing excitement in the air with multiple offers, high-end buyers back in the market and reports of the best sales month in years. Confidence is creeping back.

Those that were not affected by the recession are reaping the benefits. Prices have been corrected. The competition is heating up for those who have been waiting to get that great buy or build what they have been picturing for years.

I am delighted that the insanity of over-building, teardowns and demolition of retail buildings leaving voids in our downtown has ceased. We are sobering up to repel the indignity of the McMansion era. Sustainability is now "cool and responsible." Hello!

So what is next on the commercial side? Signs of bad decisions have scared Oak Park and River Forest, which need to be addressed and resolved. Great voids in downtown continue to loom. The shuttered Marshall Field retail space with its blue cloaked scaffolding (tuck pointing and masonry repair) lays dark and empty at the most prime location. That image casts doubt to potential tenants, developers and buyers. If you can't make it here where is a better location for commercial use? This corner at Harlem and Lake and the iconic building send a streaming message as to the health of Oak Park. Help!

Across the street next to the Gap development we find another void that sucks the life out of Lake Street. The result of bad timing and premature razing of historic buildings, we now have a lifeless surface parking lot in the heart of our village. It provides nothing more than inefficient parking creating a huge dead gap between shops.

Another tragedy at South Boulevard and Home is the frozen in place SoHo residential development. This stand of blue and white building paper wrapped boxes being over-run with weeds and boarded up with plywood, warns all to beware. The Transit Oriented Development location and program for the project make a lot of sense. Offering townhouses and loft apartments with a direct link to the Loop via the Green Line. Perhaps with the new demand for rental apartments, financing could be secured to complete the construction.

These three highly visible properties need to be returned to their highest and best use. The shock of our last property tax reminds me of the importance of having fully and successful occupied retail space. On the other hand we have seen the completion lately of three wonderful projects that reveal a bright future for Oak Park.

Not that many years ago at Harlem and Ontario we had a surface parking lot. Now we have a very successful Trader Joe's, parking garage and a high-rise building with fully occupied apartments. This winner should breed confidence that the Fields building is due a rebirth. How about an Apple Store or CB2 on this primo corner?

The extension of the south Marion Street brick paving, bluestone sidewalks and landscaping has united the retail on both sides of the train tracks. This delightful improvement has established a pedestrian link and become a compelling gateway to Oak Park. Shops are filled and the street is a lively destination. I would love to see Lake Street from Forest to Harlem get the same infrastructure treatment, encouraging new shops and restaurants to fill in the vacancies. Completed last month is the renovation and opening up of the historic Mills Park adjacent to Pleasant Home. This popular park is a beautiful asset to the community and a reflection of our collective health.

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Q from Oak Park  

Posted: August 15th, 2012 10:51 PM

Garret Eakin, I don't want to assume that you are an architect because it says under your name, Architecture columnist, which really means you talk about buildings. The parking lot that you think is a waste, is fantastic to park in. It's a very busy parking lot and that's because people use it, and they use it because it is needed. The brick streets doesn't join the shopping districts on Marion street. They are separated by both the L train and trains.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: August 15th, 2012 10:31 PM

How many papers small local newspapers have an Architectural Columnists that are specialists in local economics? Do architects become ghost writers for the real estate industry when business is slow? The WJ should have the integrity to acknowledge that the puff pieces financed by realtors are advertising and not professional news.

Down on Downtown from Oak Park  

Posted: August 8th, 2012 2:18 PM

I'm delighted the teardown binge has tapered off as well, but I fear the damage is irreversible. We have exchanged the neighborhood-oriented Certifiedland for the corporate, prepackaged blandness of Trader Joes. The mandated cheeriness of Hawaiian shirts hardly makes up for the fact that it is encased in a concrete parking complex. "Recovery" is a relative term. The best we can hope for are more corporate chains with an efficient enough business model to pay the pricey new-constr

Fred Tamburino from Oak Park   

Posted: August 8th, 2012 10:00 AM

The reason for all the empty store fronts is the rents are too high, Landlords are greedy and they don't want to pay for anything. Oak Park did not want Lyan Bryant in their town remember the problem they had (see past stories about this topic that appeared in this paper) MOre business will close and are for sale on Lake Street!


Posted: August 8th, 2012 2:43 AM

I highly doubt a Mac store will entertain the idea of opening shop considering that the MacSpecalist store is opening up. CB2 may be a bit too modern for the majority of tastes in OP, but a West Elm may go down better. The issue with furniture stores is parking. Lugging a heavy piece of furniture across the street to your car does not provide much inventive to shop there.

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