The Colt building will be studied again. But this time, demolition is possible.
After multiple studies have shown restoration of the downtown building to be financially untenable, the village board decided last Thursday in a study session to issue a new, more market-driven Request For Proposals (RFP) to find other possibilities for the Colt’s future.
Village President David Pope hopes the process will now move as quickly as possible to bring a sense of certainty to downtown business owners. Trustees also asked that the RFP make some mention of keeping the structure unique, regardless of what plan was chosen.
“My hope is that with those responses that come back, [after the RFP is released] we’ll be in a position to be able to move forward in one direction or another within a reasonable matter of time,” said Pope.
Just what direction that will be depends on the responses to the RFP-essentially redevelopment plans for the Colt that don’t need to include its restoration, as the previous RFP did.
Destruction of the building is possible this time, as long as the building that goes up in the Colt’s place is unique and maintains the aesthetic of the rest of the downtown area.
According to Trustee Ray Johnson, the RFP could take up to seven months to produce a result. However, other trustees believed the process could be expedited by dropping public participatory planning steps and take just 90 days.
In a statement released Sept. 22, the day following the study session, Pat Zubak, executive director of Downtown Oak Park, expressed jubilation at the results of the session. She commended President Pope and the trustees for making what her organization believes is the right choice for the community.
“We are back to the realm of endless possibilities, with the capacity of becoming the best downtown in the Chicago Metro area,” Zubak said. “That means an incredible retail/restaurant mix-beautiful architecture and urban design-a downtown where all of our residents cannot only point to and be proud of, but also a place where they can find the goods and services that they need and want.”
Trustee Robert Milstein, in response to the statement, noted that restoration was still an option, and what happens is really up to the market. He also noted that many other buildings in Oak Park are in need of restoration.
After the session and the release of Zubak’s statement, Johnson said he believes the board’s decision didn’t provide the assurance that the downtown business community desires.
“Many have stated that ‘developers want certainty,’ and the [chosen] approach provides no certainty and worse is a clear indication that directionally the board is floundering,” Johnson said. “My fear is whatever response we get (or worse if we get none) simply starts the dialogue over yet again about how to move forward. We didn’t make a decision Thursday-we punted towards two very different approaches.”
At the Sept. 21 study session, the board met with Economics Research Associates’ (ERA) Chris Brewer and architect Henry Zimoch to discuss the consultants’ three plans for the restoration and renovation of the Colt building (located just east of Pier 1 Imports on Lake Street, the building has multiple Lake Street and Westgate addresses) and for 1145 Westgate.
Zimoch’s team of consultants was chosen for its response to the village’s last RFP on the Colt.
The parties spent four hours of detailed and heated discussion over the documents presented by ERA and Zimoch.
Scenario A would involve a restoration of the Colt’s faade and pedestrian arcade, and remodeling. Scenario B would be the same as A but would also include the construction of an east wing, part of the building’s original plan that was scrapped because it became unaffordable after the Great Depression hit in 1929. Scenario C, met least favorably by the community, included restoration but would also involve building condominiums above the existing building.
Before reaching a decision, the board engaged in an intense argument and analysis, and questioned Brewer and Zimoch extensively.
A driving point for Trustee Greg Marsey was the break-even point: How much would the village have to charge per square foot in order for the project to break even? That figure, according to the report, is $37 per square foot.
Lease rates downtown run anywhere from $25 to $40 per square foot, with the higher figures seen in brand new buildings such as RSC’s Eleven 20 Club, according to two sources familiar with downtown rates. Office spaces rent at about $22 per square foot.
Trustee Martha Brock said she was uncomfortable with the fact that she was looking strictly at cost numbers, questioning whether some of the numbers were inflated. She felt that the information in the reports was inconclusive and would likely lead to a bad decision.
“It’s not all about cost. History needs to be factored into the trustees’ decision … . I’m not comfortable with you just pushing numbers in front of me,” Brock said.
Johnson said the claim that more information is needed is “analysis paralysis,” and that the $550,000 the village has spent already studying the Colt is enough.
Trustee Johnson pondered the future of Downtown Oak Park, and wondered who specifically the area should be designed for. He pointed to a figure in the report drawn from trends in U.S. Census data, stating that by 2010, 40 percent of the Oak Park population will be persons living alone.
“How will this impact the way we support schools and future referendums?” he asked.
Johnson also pointed out the section of the report that declared the Colt building lacked historical integrity; there wasn’t enough of the original fabric there to warrant restoration. Reportedly, only 20 percent of the original faade is intact.
Trustee Robert Milstein pointed out his belief that, even though the building had been restored and rebuilt, what is more significant is the quality of the work done on the building. “The question isn’t if the building has been touched, but the question is the quality of the touch,” he said.
Milstein said that when dealing with the Colt building you have to look at things in a broader context. He pointed to a lack of a clear retail, preservation, and parking strategy in Oak Park, saying that the village only has a “hodge-podge” strategy. “I don’t care if this loses money,” he said in reference to restoration plans.
Marsey seethed at what he perceived as hesitation and uncertainty among board members, as well as what he believed was the ignoring, by some, of the numbers the study presented.
“I’ve looked at the numbers, and all of them bleed red ink,” said Marsey. “Best-case scenario, we spend $5.5 million, more than the Whiteco Project, and it escalates for years … . How many ways do we need to cut the numbers to know they don’t work? Only 20 percent of the original face is intact. We’re rebuilding to go back to a failed design. What’s the point?”
Trustee Geoff Baker agreed that a decision needed to be made but pointed to the need to keep Oak Park’s unique appearance if a new building were raised in the Colt’s place.
“Are we going to raze significant parts of Downtown Oak Park or become a generic suburb?” he asked.
Pope agreed with Marsey that the building might not be worth restoration, and that other areas might suffer with the money spent on the Colt, pointing to District 97 as being on the “short end of the stick.” He said Tax Increment Financing funds-available for projects like the Colt that are within the Downtown TIF District-should not be viewed as an unending well of money.
“I’m a preservationist at heart, but I’m also a realist,” Pope said. “There’s a difference between what looks historic and what is historic.”
He pointed to the example of Oak Park’s Unity Temple being named one of the 100 greatest buildings in the world in a book he recently picked up, and said he believed that the Colt isn’t at the level of Unity or other gems in Oak Park. Pope said that whatever went in the building’s place would maintain the same aesthetic as the rest of downtown.
Trustee Elizabeth Brady said she would like to see something creative done with an RFP for the Colt Building, maybe a design contest.