Sipping a glass of freshly popped champagne, a light mist falling outside their small boutique, Adriana Kopecka and her mother Sylvia rejoiced. The new Marion Street was finally open.
“It’s been a long process, very fatiguing, and I think, now that it’s done, I can become sane again,” said Kopecka, owner of The Rocking Horse Boutique.
The process started at the village board table last year and involved months of construction and anxiety for business owners, shoppers, and government officials alike.
Before a vocal crowd of hundreds and in a light rainfall, the auto-accessible Marion Street re-opened for business the evening of Tuesday, Nov. 20.
The night featured brief words of jubilation from the village president, village manager, and Lake Theatre owner Willis Johnson. An ice sculpture was showcased, but the planned parade of vintage cars was sabotaged by the weather. Only one driver showed up, a longtime Oak Park resident with his black 1926 Model Ford T, but the other nine stayed home for fear the drizzle might damage their antiques.
Westgate is still closed, with work left installing the bricks and blue stone sidewalks. Workers are also still finishing the small fountain on the street, which won’t be turned on until next spring because of cold weather.
As of Tuesday morning, Marion still wasn’t open to current vintage vehicle traffic. A spot where the granite curb meets the walkway near Marion and North Boulevard still needed to be filled in. The village worried that traffic and water might cause the spot to wear down and result in significant damage, Loretta Daly, village business services manager, said. It should be reopened by Wednesday according to village estimates.
Village Manager Tom Barwin gushed about the new street, comparing it to something stripped right out of a Hollywood movie set. He also praised Village President David Pope for his leadership and dedication, calling him the Michelangelo and General George Patton of the new Marion.
“I haven’t seen a finer street in all of America so far, and if you see one, let us know,” Barwin said.
There were times when Pope would measure the sidewalks to make sure they were the right width, or obsess that the right bricks were used, Barwin said, and it was all worth it.
“There’s an elegant simplicity to the materials that were selected for this project and the way in which the integrity of the design was put together, and it really looks to the future,” Pope said. “We wanted to try to create something that doesn’t just mimic the past, but that speaks to the very best of the past while also incorporating a vision for an exciting future that we have here in front of us in Oak Park.”
Tying the past to Oak Park’s future was a recurring theme of the night. Pope wore a dapper brown hat and a long, dark trench coat, looking like someone pulled from a 1930s detective flick. Barwin said, if he were to personify the street, it would be Ginger Rogers or Fred Astaire, dancing actors from that same era.
“It harkens back to some of the old times,” Trustee Ernest Moore said that night. “It’s a throwback to yesteryears and yet is modern and up to date.”
Officials involved in the restreeting expressed relief with the results and said their expectations were exceeded.
“The marriage of materials is just amazing, and the enthusiasm, not just the merchants, but [that] the residents have shown all day, is phenomenal,” Daly said. “It’s our living room, and people are really taking to it.”
“I think it came out better than expected,” said Village Engineer Jim Budrick. “Talking with the businesses, and talking with the people who are down here, they just say the whole atmosphere is much better. It’s a gem.”
“It’s a thousand percent better; it’s what it should be,” said Pat Zubak, Downtown Oak Park’s executive director. “It’s now a very important part of the downtown, whereas a year ago, it was kind of a pedway that maybe you happened to notice, maybe you didn’t. Now you cannot miss this street.”
“I was stunned tonight; it’s really spectacular and well-done,” said Jim Holmes, a board member for the non-profit shop Ten Thousand Villages. “We had some fairly good sales up to now, but the traffic the past couple days has been incredible compared to what we thought it might be.”
“The whole ambience with the lights and speakers-I feel like I’m in Disneyland,” said John Eisner, owner of Pumpkin Moon and Scratch ‘N’ Sniff.
Marion’s brick street, blue stone sidewalks, overhead archway and old-fashioned street lamps even partially won over some of those opposed to the restreeting.
“I miss the mall, but it’s pretty; the brick streets are nice,” said Ann Payne, a 30-year Oak Park resident. “I could get used to it, but I don’t know if they’ll get more business because the parking is so limited.”
“I think it’s gorgeous, and I’m very impressed with the construction and the way it was managed,” said Mickey Baer, A Matter of Style owner, who said some of his clients were opposed to the change. “I think we’re at a good starting point. … The next step is parking. Parking is everything. We want this to be a street to park in, not a street to nowhere.”
Others, like former trustee Robert Milstein who opposed the Marion mall removal, weren’t sold yet on the change. Milstein was part of a group vehemently opposed to the switch earlier this year, gathering reportedly thousands of signatures in a petition.
“How does adding 80 parking spots and a street result in saving Lake [Street] retail?” Milstein said by phone Monday. “It is a very serious error, and we’ll see what happens. The proof will be if retail sales increase.”
Milstein agreed that the village needed to fix Marion in its deteriorated condition. He believes, with next year’s parking fund showing a $3 million deficit, that the restreeting expense far exceeds the possible gain in sales tax. It’s important that downtown adopts a clear retail plan and some sort of uniform store hours to take a step forward, he said.
Champagne-sipping Kopecka looked out her front window and said, “Seeing so many people out there is very encouraging. Hopefully this is the beginning of a new tide.”