There is often merit in historic preservation districts in residential neighborhoods. Oak Park has three such districts, and, fundamentally, they have served the village well over recent decades. Homes have been preserved and restored. Property values have risen. A strong sense of community has been enhanced.
We do not see merit, though, in layering historic preservation district status over the whole of any commercial business district, as is currently being contemplated for Downtown Oak Park. Commercial districts are, by their nature, more changing than a block of historic homes. Shopping and service areas must be adaptable to altered shopping patterns, to new waves of competition whether from big boxes or the Internet. Freezing in time the physical structures of commercial districts is to ignore the dynamic nature of doing business.
The current effort, the subject right now of a series of public hearings, is ill-timed as the downtown fights its way through a tangle of related issues. The future of the Colt building, an absurd debate which may have started this quixotic process, goes to the heart of this discussion. Once a workable part of the downtown, the building is now functionally obsolete, dilapidated and, through no fault of its own, happens to be sitting in the wrong place. Call the whole of downtown a historic district and the methods of adapting and correcting such troubled situations are made more complex and more political.
Here’s our advice:
The village board and the Historic Preservation Commission should take the overarching historic district off the table right now and completely. It has further infuriated and alienated the downtown business community. It is a non-starter.
The board and the HPC should state the practical and the political reality and announce now that no recommendation from the commission will be forthcoming until well after the current, and in terms of downtown development, discredited village board has been altered by voters in April.
Downtown property owners, especially those who own the several architectural gems in the district, must be engaged, and must be willing to become engaged, in a fruitful discussion of how those buildings will be preserved for generations to come. Imposing a district, or even landmark status, on the holdings of a highly entrepreneurial group is a shortsighted way to pick a fight. How about we stop doing that in Oak Park?
How about talking?
Ping pong comes to mind when we consider the back-and-forth, convoluted and mixed messages sent to developers, and potential developers, in Oak Park.
The most recent example of theatre of the bizarre was last week when John Schiess and Alex Troyanovsky lost a bid to build townhomes at South Boulevard and Home Avenue. The vote was a volley of parliamentarian super-majorities, missing and recused trustees, a Plan Commission upholding what it thought was the village’s plan for the site, and neighbors feeling snubbed when the development they felt they had negotiated in good faith with Schiess for low-rise townhomes went poof.
How do we keep getting to this point?
What would happen if reasonable people representing all sides-developers, village staff, commission members, neighbors, the business community-sat at the same table early in the process and talked through their varied interests? It could not be worse than the time-consuming, costly and cynicism-inducing process we keep stumbling through.