The artist’s renderings for the plan to open the Marion Street mall to automobile traffic, carried in Wednesday Journal on Feb. 21 are appealing, but only in the seductive sense that they serve as a poor depiction of the future.

Notably absent are exhaust-spewing, horn-blowing cars. Might the absence of traffic in the sketches have something to do with selling the project, because cars backed up within just a few feet of curbside tables would detract from the charm of this one block stretch? If the the primary motive of the project is to create car traffic, aren’t these depictions essentially dishonest?

That objection aside, in the end, the more fundamental question is whether there is any good to come from cars on Marion or, posing it another way, is there any reasonable basis to presume a causal link between traffic there and a revival of downtown business to any meaningful degree to justify the expenditure? This underlying postulate in favor of “streeting” the mall strikes me as preposterous on its face, spilling over into the realm of the oxymoronical.

Admittedly, this Oak Park resident brings no urban planning expertise to the discussion. On the other hand, it doesn’t appear to require much more than common sense to observe that a thriving business district in our village will be generated by factors entirely independent of whether cars can cross this small pedestrian-gathering sanctuary.

If the concern is a business turnaround, then the focus should be on other factors, including these three:

1) the quality and diversity of stores and eating establishments,

2) the availability of parking, and

3) whether there is ease of access to the Oak Park business district.

These are the elements that will attract shoppers and visitors, not whether someone can drive their car over every conceivable square foot of actual or potential thoroughfare within the business district. After all, are there any studies that show that a typical shopper goes to their car to find a new parking space as they move from store to store in a compact business district like ours? Would anyone contemplating a shopping trip to our village be influenced in even the slightest degree by whether they can drive down this one block stretch? Such a consideration is certainly not part of my deliberations when I decide to travel to any other shopping venue in the Chicago area. I want to know that I can get there expediently and that the destination offers interesting stores and places to eat and plentiful parking. I certainly don’t pore over a map and call up the village’s street department to check to see if I’ll be able to drive my vehicle over every single foot of side streets in the immediate area (and we are talking about “feet” here).

But I take the planners at their word that cars in significant numbers will be driven over this one-block stretch, even if this traffic isn’t depicted in the drawings. So the question becomes whether this will lead to greater exposure or awareness of the businesses along Marion, and then whether those businesses will have more customers as a result.

Two thoughts about that: First, I’m skeptical that without cars traversing the mall the stores along it will continue to go undiscovered to any significant degree. There are far better ways of highlighting the existence of businesses in our village than depending on out-of-town visitors to drive past each storefront. Further, the decision to frequent a store or restaurant is based on factors beyond just the mere knowledge of its existence (see above). This point is driven home by all the vacant storefronts along the much more heavily traversed Lake Street (see Allen Green’s letter in the Feb. 21 Viewpoints).

In a conversation this morning with a neighbor who supports the installation of the street, he argued that Oak Park residents do not sufficiently support local businesses. But lamenting the spending habits of the community doesn’t get us anywhere. That difficulty, to the extent that it exists, lies with the businesses, not with the consumers or their inability to drive their cars over the mall.

If the business district of Oak Park is in some degree of cardiac failure (whether class I, II, III, or IV), the medical equivalent of the “treatment” of opening the short Marion Street mall to cars would be an entirely fanciful bypass surgery or angioplasty for a clogged coronary capillary. It cannot be reasonably anticipated that function would be restored in either instance. What we will end up with is a continuing struggling business environment, to the extent that the essential elements are not in place, millions of dollars wasted, and cars traversing the mall, eliminating this delightful highlight (one of many) in the overall wonderful tapestry of our community.

The commitment of even a small portion of the contemplated $5 million to “street” the mall and use it instead to upgrade it, would be money much better spent.

I like those artist renderings. Just get rid of that parked car. It adds nothing.

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