Super ideas, well, lots of ideas for DTOP superblock

Citizens share designs for Oak Park's downtown

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By DREW CARTER

Community input on the design of the downtown "superblock" was expected last night from a half-dozen people at a meeting of the Downtown Sub-Area Plan Steering Committee that took place after press time.

More than just a catchy name, DSAPSC is charged with recommending to the village board what to do about its purchase agreement on the Colt Building, which has storefronts at 1138-1146 on Westgate and Lake Street, as part of a larger development plan.

The superblock is bounded by Lake Street, Marion Street, North Boulevard and Harlem Avenue.

A seventh presentation originally expected from the Taxman Corp., the company with which the village has the purchase agreement, did not seem likely Tuesday morning. Taxman President Tim Hague said in a voicemail message the company would wait to hear proposals from the community and would not present its own ideas Tuesday night.

"We think that would enable the process, provide for a more open process and aid us in the process," Hague said.

An early look at proposals showed the gamut would be well represented.

Michael Roy Iverson, an architect and adjunct assistant professor at the Urban Planning and Policy Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, submitted a 35-page proposal, complete with diagrammatic maps, historic pictures and photo illustrations.

In the proposal, Iverson calls for "minimal or no use of TIF [tax increment financing] funding" for redesign of the block, and argues against other central ideas of the Greater Downtown Master Plan, done by Portland-based Crandall Arambula.

"To ignore our car culture would be folly," Iverson writes, "but to plan our village to accommodate vehicles rather than people would be our ruin. Building more publicly-financed, multiple-level parking garages, opening up Marion Street pedestrian mall, and adding Station Street are not viable solutions."

Oak Park "can't be all things to all people," he writes, so the village should not focus on its weakness but recognize "what provides Oak Park's unique sense of place is not plentiful and affordable parking."

Iverson would restore the Colt Building to its original two-building design with a 24-foot-wide pedestrian arcade connecting Lake to Westgate, turn Marion into an open-air marketplace similar to Boston's Faneuil Hall, and build a 579-space four-story North Boulevard parking garage with first-floor retail.

Mike Reust, a resident who described his affiliations as, "It's just me," has attended most of the committee's meetings and wanted to add his two cents.

"I like old buildings. I like Oak Park. It just kind of upset me to see old buildings could get torn down based on the Crandall Arambula plan," Reust said.

He wants to keep the Marion Street mall closed to vehicular traffic between Lake and Westgate, and allow parking on one side only of Marion on the southern end to maintain a visual connection to Lake and a pedestrian friendly environment.

Reust would like to give the mall a makeover, open it up, and install information kiosks "similar to what you see in college towns" for posting event flyers.

The green space on the mall could be a "small strolling/sitting garden" where a Christmas tree could be placed in winter.

Forum Oak Park, or ForOP, a new group that plans to weigh in on village-wide issues, will also present.

That group began by developing a downtown vision, which reads less like a look to the area's future than a rosy snapshot of its present condition.

Jon Hale, a spokesman for ForOP, clarified the group's position. "We think Oak Park deserves a better, more vibrant downtown...so Oak Parkers don't have to get in their cars and drive [to shop elsewhere]...a place where people live and work, as well as play."

The group found that the plan commissioned by the village?#34;Crandall Arambula's Greater Downtown Master Plan?#34;was compatible with its vision, and that its key elements were crucial to the area's development.

The Colt Building has a "questionable history," Hale said, and the group recommends the village should not act on the purchase agreement with Taxman. The $5 million price tag plus other expenses would be better spent elsewhere, Hale said, and committing to preserving Colt would mean saving the building directly south across the street (1145 Westgate), too.

Hale said he would argue for building Station Street, which would draw commuters on North Boulevard to Lake Street, but preserve the eastern-most Westgate buildings.

Hale would open the mall, and hopes eventually the Shops of Downtown Oak Park would be redeveloped at a higher density.

Barbara Mullarkey, Kathryn Jonas, and REDCOOP (Responsible Economic Development-Citizens of Oak Park) were also on the presentation docket.

The committee is expected to add meetings to its calendar in order to finish on time. Next week it is expected to talk about elements it will include in its recommendation to the village board, due the second week of October.

CONTACT: dcarter@wjinc.com

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