Sides are being taken. Battle lines are being drawn. Each side is rallying its troops.

At issue: the development of the character of Oak Park, say some, vs. the preservation of property rights, say others.

To wit: “Any attempt to not fill [Downtown Oak Park] with the massive development [that has been proposed] will be seen by some of these [property] owners as a taking of property rights and opportunities for immediate profit,” Gary Schwab, a candidate for village trustee on the Vision Community Action ticket, wrote in an online newsgroup posting. “We have to decide, as a village, whether the purpose of government is simply to encourage short-term economic ‘growth,’ regardless of what it makes the place look or feel like, or to attempt to maintain and enhance the character and quality of life that so many have worked so hard to create.”

On the other side: “This clearly is nothing more than a politically driven timeline, ignoring any kind of meaningful dialogue with the property owners,” Anthony Shaker of Shaker Management Co. said in a statement. “The property owners who have invested life savings in this important area of Oak Park deserve better when their property rights can be so adversely affected.”

The issue of downtown preservation came to the fore last Tuesday, when the Historic Preservation Commission held the first of two public input and information sessions at the Oak Park Public Library. The second took place last night. The commission will begin deliberating on the issue at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 8.

The village board charged the commission to return recommendations in three areas-creating a National Register and/or a local historic district downtown, and/or designating certain buildings as landmarks.

Amid the polemics, some are saying there’s a center ground.

“PRESERVATION IS DEVELOPMENT,” Vince Michael, an associate professor of historic preservation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago wrote on his blog, Time Tells (

The use of all-caps online is considered tantamount to shouting. “Sorry to shout, but between the Wednesday Journal and the ‘Business and Civic Council’ of Oak Park there is a heckuva lot of misinformation going around, and sometimes you need to bust some caps.”

What “the narrow-minded” are missing in the issue, Michael says, is that “Preservation is not a thing, it is a PROCESS. The results are not predetermined.

“I have argued this point with developers, but they are just angling-angling for the absence of a process, which would make their job easier. And like any job made easier, it is done worse. You do economic development without any process and it happens faster and easier and it is gone in two years and looks like … well … .”

Doug Gilbert, chair of the Historic Preservation Commission, says his 10-member commission also needs to find the middle.

“It’s our job to try and find a balance in there that finds a reasonable level of preservation planning and still addresses the concerns owners have,” Gilbert said.

He echoed Michael’s claim that historic preservation is a process-another planning tool for the village’s use.

“It’s not an all-or-nothing kind of approach,” Gilbert said. “Without some sort of formal framework, people end up approaching it from a battle standpoint … instead of looking comprehensively at preservation downtown and agreeing among all parties on what is the best fit.”

The commission began looking at preservation downtown in 2003, when it updated a survey of buildings there. Gilbert said about two-thirds of downtown buildings would be considered “significant” or “contributing” based on the survey. That percentage would rise if a historic district were drawn, because the boundary would exclude areas that did not have historic structures.

He said there are about 20 buildings downtown that are “significant.”

Creating a National Register historic district downtown would not restrict owners from making any changes to their buildings, but would offer them tax incentives. A local historic district would give the village the power to review teardowns, and have binding authority over teardowns or partial demolitions of contributing buildings.

A less-restrictive option would be to landmark notable buildings downtown.

“What that does is provide local protection for the buildings that are the most historic or architecturally [significant],” Gilbert said.

Creating landmarks downtown could have other impacts on property owners, though. In the planned-unit development process, the Historic Preservation Commission is asked to comment on buildings within 250 feet of a landmark. Depending on the number and locations of buildings designated, feasibly the entire downtown area could be within 250 feet of a landmark, Gilbert said.

Property owners do not have to agree to either the creation of a local historic district or landmark status on individual buildings.

Downtown Oak Park Executive Director Pat Zubak said other historic downtowns have kept their character without imposing preservation districts. “Preservation is not the answer,” she said in a statement.

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