Oak Park has approximately 108 miles of streets. Of these, there is only one block, the Marion Street mall, that is off-limits to car traffic. Only one block in the entire village where shoppers, families with small children, and pedestrian commuters can experience a leisurely walk, a quiet rest on a bench, a relaxed conversation with a friend-along with relief from the noise and smells of today’s ubiquitous automobile traffic.
This block has been ignored by village government and the Downtown Oak Park business association for 23 years. It has been allowed to fall into disrepair by the lack of funding regular maintenance (while nearly $20 million of tax money has been diverted to Taxman for The Shops and to Dean White for the Whiteco luxury apartments).
Local shopkeepers refer to the large puddles formed after rainfalls as Lake Marion. In spite of the lack of maintenance and the visual clutter, this block has the potential, along with the Westgate Tudor-style block of buildings, to be one of the loveliest shopping districts in Oak Park.
It is with an astounding lack of vision that the village is now planning to eliminate the sole pedestrian street in Oak Park. The reason given-that retail is suffering because of the lack of visibility from the windshield-does not hold water. Marion Street has fewer vacancies and fewer marginal month-to-month tenants than Lake Street, which has been open to traffic since 1989. In fact, Marion Street has some very long-term tenants that attract regional shoppers.
A more creative, enlightened board would look at the successful pedestrian retail malls in Boulder, Colo. and Burlington, Vt. for examples of what Marion Street could be. Most historic towns in Europe have provided pedestrian-only retail districts which tend to be some of the liveliest places with quality cafes, restaurants and shops. Imagine a beautifully redesigned Marion Street mall, alive in the evenings with activity.
Those who say it won’t work because cars aren’t allowed should look at the success of the Oak Brook and Old Orchard malls. Shoppers here are willing to walk long distances to get to quality destinations. With the future North Blvd. garage, the expanded Holley Court garage, and the nearby Metra and el stops, pedestrians would not have to walk further than a block or two. The infrastructure is already there.
The board has budgeted $5 million to tear up the Marion mall and restreet it along with Westgate. This money could be better spent upgrading it as a pedestrian way, restoring the historic buildings on the street that owners have allowed to fall into disrepair, and bringing in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street program (used on Madison Street in Forest Park) to develop a strong marketing program to aid with retail.
If you have a vision for the Marion/Westgate district, please share it with the village at the three upcoming planning sessions.
A new $5-million street for automobiles is not a vision.