Wednesday Journal has called for citizen input about the plans for the “superblock” in Downtown Oak Park. The various proposals and visions presented at the meeting of the Steering Committee last week (Sept. 20) included creative and thoughtful recommendations about attracting shoppers, preserving meritorious historic buildings, and increasing density to sustain economic development. I applaud the hard work of our fellow citizens who presented their ideas.
Yet most of the proposed plans did not adequately address a key component of a revitalized DTOP: traffic management. The DTOP discussion has shifted to Westgate preservation and whether to open the Marion Street mall to cars. These are important issues, but need to be considered in conjunction with larger traffic issues affecting DTOP.
First, the superblock plan needs to address the traffic bottleneck that currently exists on Lake between Harlem and Forest. Oak Parkers I know all say they avoid this stretch because of the perpetual traffic jam. We need a plan that eases this problem so cars can circulate through downtown and retailers on Lake (and Marion and Westgate) can get the visibility they need to be viable.
Second, revitalization necessitates bringing more people to downtown Oak Park to shop, access services, and live. More people means more traffic: autos, pedestrians, and service vehicles. Any successful plan needs to move all three types of traffic through downtown efficiently and conveniently.
Third, drivers need a clear and direct way to get to a new parking structure (proposed plans placed it somewhere along North Boulevard and/or in the Old Navy surface lot). When people drive down Lake and see a place they want to shop, they need convenient access to parking or they won’t stop.
Fourth, one proposed traffic solution looks good on paper but has too many problems to be viable. Some plans proposed a new street that would run between Pier One and the Colt Building (now a ped-way), through the Old Navy parking lot, and through a proposed underpass that would connect with Maple Street.
This proposal has problems from beginning to end. Turning off Lake so close to Harlem would back up traffic on Harlem and thus is unlikely to get IDOT approval. Getting the railroad to agree to another underpass would take years and lots of lawyers and money, in addition to the costs of constructing it. It’s a nice idea, but just too uncertain and expensive to solve real and important problems that are central to a successful downtown.
The most viable solutions to these problems are already in the Master Plan approved by the village earlier this year: create a new street between the Metra/CTA station and Lake and open Westgate and (at least part of) the Marion mall to autos. All would need to be pedestrian-friendly to encourage people to park (or disembark) and circulate through downtown.
Given our preservation concerns, it makes sense to position the new street to preserve as many structures as possible, but we are going to have to make some tough choices if we want downtown to be economically viable. Saving every building or pinning our hopes on an uncertain proposal like Maple Street are both recipes for more of the same: old buildings that few people see because they are hard to get to and they lack viable retail.Editor’s note: We encourage readers to submit their proposals on how to redevelop the Downtown Oak Park “superblock.”