Whether public bodies should own private property is one of those topics that gets people into their political corners quickly. The socialists among us think the government ought to own everything for the public good. The libertarian types stand up strong, and always, for the private marketplace as the arbiter of what is good.
As usual, the extreme positions are wrong.
Oak Park is having the debate right now as it finally assesses the odd assemblage of commercial properties it has amassed over the decades for this reason or that (see the current list on page 20). We’re not talking dedicated parcels here-the sites that were bought for the village hall or for parking lots in strategic places. We’re talking about why village hall still owns the Tasty Dog site and building. Why for 20-plus years the village has owned the northwest corner of Chicago and Austin.
Last week, the Journal reported that the village board has authorized the staff to put a key property on the 800 block of South Oak Park Avenue on the market. Now I know this building as the Avenue Pharmacy, even though it hasn’t been a drug store for decades. Trouble is, it hasn’t been anything for decades. The village, which is also cash-starved, may look at selling other parcels in the months to come.
How’d we get here? In two primary ways:
The first was a perceived need for self-protection. Go back 30 years when white flight and commercial disinvestment was real in Oak Park. There were not positive buyers lined up to purchase business property in Oak Park. So the village intervened and bought strategic sites itself. It worked well when it bought an abandoned gas station at Division and Austin to prevent it from being converted into a rib joint which was seen as an extension of Austin’s decay. The village held the site only long enough to sell it to a respected housing developer who built townhouses on the site. A victory for government intervention.
It worked well when the village bought decrepit commercial sites at North and Austin and eventually transferred ownership to Park National Bank which has, with private funds, created one of Oak Park’s most graceful entryways.
On the other hand, the village has owned and managed Chicago and Austin forever. And while the property has been well kept, its weak combination of tenants has done nothing to spark a renaissance at this vital intersection. Meanwhile the village has just wasted, what, a million bucks on brick pavers and wrought-iron fencing on the strip? Here’s the proof that the village doesn’t know what it is doing when it comes to retail and should long ago have found an active owner, built some solid protection into a sales contract, and taken out the cash.
More recently, as the market has rightly recognized Oak Park as a desirous place to do business, Oak Park has become a strategic buyer. This has worked when there’s been a strategy. Too often there has been no plan so the property sits on the village’s property roll call.
Nearly 10 years ago, the village bought a long empty storefront on south Oak Park Avenue. The plan was to find a restaurant operator and owner with enough cash to make a major investment. They found that combo and the Avenue Ale House is now a key destination at Oak Park and the Eisenhower. However, across the street the village bought the old pharmacy, and it has sat fundamentally empty for years on end.
No plan. No gain. Selling it is the right decision.
Finally, we have the contrast between the village’s expensive and non-strategic forays into buying everything that moves in downtown Oak Park and the mish-mash that has produced versus what might be a strong position along Madison Street. There the village actually has a workable plan, has assembled key parcels at Oak Park and Madison and at Highland and Madison, has notable stakeholders in Rush Oak Park Hospital and Park National. If the new village staff can, over 18 months, add the private market expertise it needs to execute the plan, then Oak Park will have shown the advantage of short-term, strategic property acquisition. Otherwise Madison will be the new downtown and Oak Park will have proven itself unable to play a positive role in economic development.