A citizen's proposal for 1000 Lake

Opinion: Columns

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By Adrian Ayres Fisher

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As the permaculturalists say, "You don't have a snail problem, you have a duck deficiency." 

That corner at Lake and Forest has plenty of "snails," no doubt. Albion representatives repeatedly stated the difficulties of designing something that would turn them a tidy profit. Plan commissioners demonstrated sensitive awareness of challenges posed by both location and site. The park district and smart, thoughtful citizens testified to the harm sure to be caused by any inappropriate building.

However, a whole flock of ducks resides in the word "gateway," which came up on every side, as in "gateway to downtown," "gateway to Austin Gardens," and "gateway to the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District." If we simply ask what would enhance downtown while serving as a gateway to the great assets to the north, it becomes clear that private, mixed-use residential is what not to build. As the Plan Commission meetings went on, that idea seemed to permeate the council chamber, until during the final meeting one of the commissioners said maybe it was another kind of building that should be built there.

The best building would serve visitors and residents, add to our architectural legacy, actively connect Lake Street with Austin Gardens and the Historic District without causing interference to the needs of Festival Theater or damaging the Environmental Education Center and the learning garden. It would model sustainability while incorporating elements of surprise and delight. A welcoming place where residents meet and visitors start exploring, it would enhance pedestrian access to the north while not adding to traffic, pollution, and other hazards. In addition, regular citizens would be included in design charettes.

What kind of building could do all this? I envision a permanent home for the Oak Park Visitors Center with a gift shop on the first floor. Also on the first floor would be a Wright-themed coffee shop. Upper floors would include a cultural museum, an event room (with possibly a small kitchen), multi-purpose rooms, and offices. The corner at Lake and Forest would be softened, the sidewalk going north along Forest widened and landscaping added. Benches in conversational groupings would encourage lingering.

This gateway building would include retail while benefiting all. Groups could rent the event room, and the multi-purpose rooms could be used for educational activities having to do with Wright and other architects, or as meeting rooms for business groups and organizations.

Who would design it? Remember, Wright lived in Oak Park. A design competition for Oak Park architects, who intimately understand the site's requirements, could yield many entries. A premium would be placed on originality, boldness and forward-looking sustainability of design and construction. Designs for small structures by such luminaries as Jeanne Gang and David Adjaye demonstrate some possibilities.

What about financing? Clearly a public-private solution would have to be found. Here again is a chance to be creative. Wright was able to design his radical, yet beautifully contextual, houses because individuals took a chance and made an investment. Do we have citizens and organizations willing to put money into this kind of project? Could a new foundation be formed? Could the village government, the OPEDC, and private entities work together? How about a crowdsourcing effort? If the political and social will were there, it would be possible.

Such a building would fit in with the neighborhood and enhance the human scale and liveliness of the area. Simultaneously gateway and destination, it would be the pivot point that corner demands. Architecturally, it would announce to the world that Oak Park takes both history and the future seriously. 

I can imagine it so clearly. I wish I could draw you a picture.

Adrian Ayres Fisher is an Oak Park resident and member of the commission that designed the 2014 Envision Oak Park Comprehensive Plan.

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