The deconstruction of the pedestrian mall on Marion Street is well underway. The tulips were all spirited away by eager recipients during Downtown’s clever Free Tulip Day. The trees are meeting a less renewable end as they fall to the axe this week. Even as heavy construction begins in the days ahead with concrete being jack-hammered, and new sewers being laid, several brave new businesses-Takara, Vestio, Bottega M and Moveable Gourmet-are open or about to open on the street.
Across town, the graystone at West Suburban Hospital fell to the wrecking ball in the immediate aftermath of the local election. Construction on the new emergency room at the hospital will follow shortly.
It is good news to me on both fronts-signs not only of progress but also of how elections are supposed to work. While both these plans finally won approval from the outgoing village board, the votes came only after endless and artificially cranked up angst. In the case of the mall hysteria and the dubious online petition, it was all pitiful politics. West Sub neighbors have more legitimate worries about the hospital and its respect for its neighbors. But in the end, the save-the-graystone mini-movement was not ever really about saving a derelict building. It was about delay and last gasps.
Election day came and while the pandering may have won the VCA a few votes among its paltry totals, the clear and simple message was that Oak Park voters have had enough of the endless delays and personality-riven politics. The politics of division failed. The politics of delay failed. The politics of stopping time and calling it a community value failed.
Voters sent a message that well-considered progress is necessary and dynamic, not something to be feared. If the message is received accurately by the new and returning board members, we will see a series of forward-moving decisions coming up through village staff and to the village board in the months ahead.
The Colt Building, which became the failed NLP board’s albatross as surely as Whiteco sank the past VMA board, will bite the dust and some reasonable redevelopment plan will emerge for that critical block.
However, it is down the street at Forest and Lake where we will truly test the mettle of this new board and the staff. That is the site of the Original Pancake House and its dwindling retail neighbors. The site also includes a decrepit village parking garage and could include a surface parking lot owned by Grace Episcopal Church. There is a developer on board.
So the stage is set for a notable project. To date there is no baggage. No one is clamoring that the non-descript one-story building is historic. Everyone agrees the parking garage is a wreck. The developer claims he wants to build within current zoning. The only hint of discord might be faintly heard in a comment from a residential neighbor to the north at a recent public meeting.
Can Village Manager Tom Barwin and his staff start a dialogue with the developer? Can the village board offer constructive input? Can a public process surface legitimate concerns but not hijack the timeline? Can, as Barwin has urged, an architecturally notable project be designed for this gateway corner? Can we do something great, in a reasonable timeframe, get new public parking, make a profit for the developer, add to the retail mix, and do it without making everybody insane?
Forest and Lake is virgin ground. It is the first real test of the new board and of the patience of the voters.