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For the first time in five years, Oak Park Village Hall is purchasing a piece of property, which is located in the "heart" of the village's downtown.
Local elected officials gave their blessing Monday, for Oak Park to purchase a two-story office building at 1133 Westgate. Village President David Pope said buying the building will help village hall control future development in downtown Oak Park.
"For us to have an opportunity to control this parcel, and to have an influence over what ultimately happens in the prime real estate location in our downtown, seems not only sensible, but mandatory," Pope said.
The current owner of the property, Dr. Lou Ivanovic, approached the village about selling last year, and again in early 2011. He had considered moving his practice from River Forest to Westgate, but instead is setting up shop at a location on North Avenue near Belleforte.
Oak Park plans to pay $965,000 for the office building, which Ivanovic bought in 2007 for $1 million. An entity called SPA Inc. has a contract to purchase the building, which it signed in August, but instead the corporation is assigning the contract to the village. Oak Park is using tax increment financing dollars to make the purchase, putting $52,233 down as earnest money.
Trustees spent less than 20 minutes discussing the deal, voting 6-0 in favor of it. Village hall spent some $7.6 million to purchase other nearby properties in 2006, and another $1.45 million to rip the structures down and put up a parking lot.
Pope said Oak Park's downtown master plan, completed by a consultant in 2005, identifies that giant block of land as the key site to be developed in the village's downtown. And 1133 Westgate is right in the center of that site. Also identified was the possibility of creating a new north-south "Station Street" between Harlem and Marion to help ease congestion along Lake Street.
Trustee Adam Salzman said he agreed that the property purchase is "strategic" but said he didn't want his vote taken as a wholesale endorsement of the existing downtown roadmap.
"In general, I've become less supportive of applying a 2005 plan to a 2011 economy," he said. "I do think that approach needs to be evaluated and talked through at this point."
Trustee Glenn Brewer said he, too, agreed with the motives behind purchasing the building, but held off on criticizing the 2005 plan.
"There's a lot that went into that process, and before we throw it out the window or call it flawed, I think we need to revisit it and study it to make sure that the elements of the plan that are there actually were designed to be useful in a variety of economic situations," Brewer said.
Village Manager Tom Barwin said the board will gather next Monday to hear a presentation on the downtown master plan and what's left to be implemented. A couple of years back, Oak Park picked Chicago-based Clark Street Development to build something new on those downtown parking lots, between Lake Street and North Boulevard east of Harlem, but the project stalled when the economy tanked.
Barwin said that trustees will also soon hear a presentation by Clark Street on its visions for the key downtown site. Oak Park will also solicit proposals from developers who are interested in building there, as is required by TIF laws.
Oak Park has gradually tried to get out of the property ownership and management business since Barwin joined the village five years ago. They've sold off 10 pieces of land since then, he said, with hopes of unloading a few more in the near future.
But Barwin said acquiring 1133 Westgate was "key" to redeveloping the "Colt superblock." It's still undecided whether Oak Park will rehab the Westgate property, build in its place, or use the land to pave a new street.
"Despite that wavelength to divest and minimize our real estate portfolio, there are still going to be occasions from time to time where any community that's serious about economic redevelopment is going to have to do an acquisition," he said.
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