Landmark bid could delay Maze renovation project

Historic Preservation Commission meets Thursday

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Library officials hoped to open their pre-qualified bids on the Maze Branch Library renovation project tomorrow, name the contractor, expedite the permit process with the cooperation of the village, and possibly begin work by the end of August.

After a lengthy public input process, which included tours of the facility, focus groups, public forums, and newspaper coverage, they thought they had a plan that everyone concurred with?#34;or at least had no major objections to.

Then on July 27, three days before Maze was scheduled to close and moving of materials set to begin, local architect Frank Heitzman submitted a nomination for landmark status to the Historic Preservation Commission.

Board member Janet Kelenson on Monday described it as "an 11th hour effort to derail a very open, very public process."

As a result, the Historic Preservation Commission will meet Thursday night in the village hall council chambers at 7:30 to decide on whether to get the landmark process rolling.

They will also, as an accommodation to the library, review the renovation plans and decide on whether to block the village permit needed to begin work on the structure.

At issue is a plan to make the building accessible to persons with disabilities by creating a long, sloping ramp that begins near the corner of Gunderson Avenue and Harrison Street, crosses the length of the building and switches back to bring wheelchairs to the front door. The library's architect, Alan Armbrust, had come up with what the library thought was an elegant solution to a difficult accessibility challenge: Raise the front door by eliminating the transom window above the door (the plan is to use that window somewhere in the new back section), then raise the door so that the new entrance overrides, so to speak, the inside lobby steps that until now, led patrons into the library proper.

The long exterior ramp would actually follow a flagstone path that appeared in the original drawings by architects E.E. Roberts and his son, Elmer C. Roberts.

The ramp came about in response to input from wheelchair patrons who said that, given a choice, they wanted to enter the building by the front door like everyone else instead of having a special entrance on the side or in back that led to an elevator.

The only objection raised when the plan was first publicized last January came from Heitzman, who sent an e-mail on Jan. 13 to the library, village trustees, Historic Preservation Commission members and several preservation architects, criticizing the ramp as too long and too dramatically altering the front facade.

Long ramps, he said, were not preferred by many persons with disabilities, especially during the winter months. He suggested an entrance off the alley on the northwest corner of the building that would lead directly to an elevator.

In earlier planning, the library had thought about an accessible entry on the southwest corner off Harrison, where, in fact, the proposed elevator is located in the current plans.

According to Armbrust, the reasons the library didn't try to offer both front and back options involved cost and security. Having two entries exponentially complicates the job of librarians trying to protect materials.

"It's hard enough with one entrance," Armbrust said.

Jim Madigan, assistant director of the Oak Park Public Library, said they wanted to avoid the back entrance solution alone because, "It sends the wrong message." Universal access is important to people with disabilities. They want to be able to use the same door as anyone else, he said.

That's fine if you're physically fit, says Heitzman, but not every wheelchair user is. A ramp that long would need landings for people to rest as they made the climb, which rises a full five feet from street level to the entrance, he said.

But access is just one of the reasons for the landmark nomination, Heitzman said. He believes the plans should be formally reviewed by the Historic Preservation Commission's Architecture Review Subcommittee.

As it happens, the library did present its plans to the commission back in April. The appearance was voluntary, noted Commission Chair Doug Gilbert, so the commission had no formal review authority. As Gilbert recalls, the commission asked plenty of questions about other accessibility alternatives, but no major objections were raised.

That might have been because no one had objections, Gilbert said, or it might have been because they had no review authority at that time so commissioners didn't mention them.

As for Gilbert's reaction at the time, "It's a complicated project to get accessibility into that building," he said. "It's multilevel and there's no clear path in. It's definitely a challenge."

Gilbert said by ordinance, the commission has to respond to an unsolicited landmark application, as Heitzman well knows since he used to be on the commission himself. Why didn't he submit it sometime between January and July? He said in January the ramp idea seemed "very preliminary." It wasn't until he came across the detailed plans on a website about a month ago that he was spurred to take action.

At Thursday night's meeting, the commission will make a determination on whether Maze meets at least one of the requirements to designate it a landmark. If they decide in favor of the application, the next step is a public hearing, which must take place within 45 days. Then the commission votes. If they approve landmark status, it goes to the village board for final approval. At best, the process would take two months.

The village can't issue a permit for work on a landmark building, then, unless the Historic Preservation Commission issues a "certificate of appropriateness."

Delaying the work, of course, is what the library fears because it will push back the completion of the project and probably add extra costs, especially if they have to come up with an accessibility "Plan B."

But Gilbert said the commission has agreed to also consider the library's permit request on Thursday in order to help expedite the process. They could approve a permit for the front ramp and doorway-raising plan; they could require some "tweaking" of the plans or ask for more information, which would delay it; or they could turn thumbs down on the plan altogether and the library would have to await the outcome of the landmark process.

Armbrust said he doesn't think the ramp idea alters the facade of the building much at all. It alters the site, he said, but the only change to the building is taking out the transom window and raising the door. It won't affect anything else.

Regardless of the accessibility issue, Heitzman believes the building should receive landmark status. He also wants the plans to go through a formal review process. He isn't worried about delays because, he said, given the cumbersome nature of the village's permit process, they might not get their permit for three months anyway.

"That's how long it takes for some of my projects," he said.

The question is: Why wasn't the Maze Library named a landmark long ago? Heitzman calls it "one of Oak Park's forgotten landmarks."

Gilbert said he's not surprised. There are a lot of buildings that deserve landmark status, he said, and the commission has been encouraging just that. They even approached the library about Maze a couple of years ago during the creation of the Gunderson Historic District, but the library declined.

Madigan says they're not opposed to the building becoming a landmark. The operative words, he said, are "not now."

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