Sara Faust, the veteran public administrator, has been president of the Oak Park Development Corporation since 2009. The development corporation is a non-profit economic development agency. I recently met with Faust to catch up with what is going on in our village and discuss her vital work.
"Although OPDC was not directly involved, one of the great coups of the year is the leasing of the former Baird and Warner space on Lake Street to Mac Specialist," said Faust. The flagship facility will contain a store for Apple products, warranty repairs, training facility and corporate headquarters. The services and products are expected to draw customers from a broad area around Oak Park. The operation will fill a prime retail space and employ some 20 people from the village.
The Oak Park Segway tours have become a wonderful success as an alternative way to tour the village, Faust mentioned. I would recommend anyone to take a ride on these phenomenal machines. First of all, you feel completely safe. Riding is intuitive, with only the slightest shift of weight to guide you, speed up or stop. You see a lot more, much faster and without expending a ton of energy if you take the Wright/Hemmingway tour, the Chocolate Tour or simply rent a Segway for a few hours to have a great architecture adventure.
The South Marion Pleasant District, following the $5.4 million renovation with the red brick street, bluestone sidewalks, landscaping and lighting is more popular than ever. The Carlton Hotel has completed a beautiful renovation of their first floor public areas and Poor Phil's has almost tripled the street dining. Also, the Marion Street Cheese Market across the street has opened al fresco dining, as has LaBellas. Adjacent to Marion Street, the park district has completed the renovation, new landscaping and opening up of the beautiful gem, Mills Park. These projects all followed the Marion Street renovation, demonstrating the value of infrastructure investments.
I asked Faust what was the status of the Aldi grocery store on Madison Street.
"It appears that Aldi will not go into the building, citing that the cost is too high," she said.
In contrast, we talked about the success of the Madison Street restaurant Chicken and Waffles. This popular spot serves an unusual combination of foods. It is beloved by many people who are inclined by traditions of soul food passed down from past generations. The unique room does not serve liquor, yet feels a little like a nightclub, particularly when they have live music. The owners have done a wonderful job of renovating this building in what may seem as an unlikely space for dining.
Faust proposed the question, "What do we need now in Oak Park?" Several ideas that came out of our batting the subject around were choices in housing and offices. It seems that one thing lacking is space with character, like the soft lofts in the city carved out of industrial buildings with exposed brick, volume ceilings, open plans and exposed heavy timber. Faust estimates there is a demand now in the village for space like this and it is something that would draw buyers from the city. I am on the list. A brew-pub style restaurant, which are wildly popular in Chicago, would be great as was demonstrated by the thousands attending our August Beer Festival.
Faust and her staff at OPDC have been busy stimulating development, one project at a time.
Garret Eakin is an award winning architect, preservation commissioner and adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute.