Despite the protests of some citizens and trustees, the Oak Park village board took the final step in approving redevelopment of the Marion Street mall Monday night.
The board voted 4-1 to continue down the “long, well-thought-out road” leading to approval of the $5.75 million construction project, in Trustee Elizabeth Brady’s words, to “follow through on commitments” the board had made.
The mall will be remade with brick streets, blue stone sidewalks wide enough to feature benches and cafe tables, and decorative lighting.
Once the improvements have been made, “We’ll all come to love it,” Brady said.
The board approved a $5.4 million guaranteed maximum price with Wood Dale-based George Sollitt Construction Co., which boasts a 169-year history and 391 projects worth $1.75 billion in the past three decades. Construction will begin as soon as possible and continue apace so as to be wrapped up before the Christmas shopping rush begins.
A Sollitt representative said they planned to help mall businesses stay open during construction.
The project, made controversial by an 11th-hour online petition and campaign aimed at stopping it, took on additional controversy in being voted on the night before Tuesday’s election. Trustee Greg Marsey chose not to attend the meeting as “a matter of principle” because it would be “arrogant” to vote on controversial issues the day before an election.
The mall vote should have come a week to 10 days earlier, but staff negotiations with the project’s contractor needed the delay in order to save the village $400,000.
“[The public] should run us up a flagpole if we didn’t wait a week to save $400,000,” said Village President David Pope.
“The timing of the issues isn’t the point to me,” Marsey said Tuesday morning. “This is about appearances.” He said he didn’t have a clear deadline in mind for dealing with controversial issues before an election, but that the day before is too close.
“I won’t be a part of something like that,” he said.
Trustee Robert Milstein, who supported re-streeting the mall until the online petition surfaced, said it was “silly” to approve the measure.
“It’s a silly decision because it really has yet to be proven that this will be the Great Coming of Stores to Oak Park,” Milstein said. “There’s so many things we could do with $5 million.”
During public comments, the board heard from 20 citizens, from a young German immigrant who hosts a Facebook.com site protesting the re-streeting to owners of businesses on the mall.
“People just don’t come to the mall anymore,” said Adriana Kopecka, who owns the Rocking Horse Boutique, 119 N. Marion St.
“Oak Park risks having the mall come as close to being blighted” as you can find in the village, said Rick McNamara, who owns Shirtworks, 127 N. Marion St.
The process for developing the design for Marion Street was praised by members of a committee composed of everyone from tree huggers to those who wanted 6-foot sidewalks, as one member put it. The results were praised, too.
But those opposing the plan also spoke. Allen Green, of the 200 block of Thomas Avenue, said the sketches of the remade street showed only one car. “What else,” he asked the board, “are you misrepresenting?”
Les Golden, of the 900 block of Forest Avenue, said he learned to count cards playing blackjack in college but had “never seen so many shills as I have seen tonight.” Pope asked him later to avoid name-calling and politics, but not before he put in a plug for the Vision Community Action slate, at which point Milstein, a member of the slate, covered his face with this hands.