Oak Park is exploring whether its ramps exiting the Eisenhower Expressway – those unique center-cut exits – could be named historic landmarks as a way to prevent any future expansion of the highway.

The community fought for exits on the left when the Interstate was built in the 1950s, as a way to keep its construction from taking even larger chunks of land bordering the highway, said Village Manager Tom Barwin.

“It was a brilliant decision at that time in many ways,” he said. “It reduced the footprint of the Eisenhower, and it made it very convenient for folks visiting Oak Park.”

Barwin has asked Oak Park’s Historic Preservation Commission to explore if the village can protect the ramps – along with any other architecturally significant structures near the highway.

The commission started that conversation last Thursday and hopes to start meeting with people in south Oak Park neighborhoods who might be affected by any future expansion, according to Chairwoman Chris Morris.

Discussion of adding a lane in each direction through Oak Park and other near west suburbs has been on the drawing board of the Illinois Department of Transportation for many years.

Typically, communities in Oak Park’s situation would go through “Section 106”- a federal regulatory process put into place in 1966 through the National Historic Preservation Act. That would require any federal agencies to first consult with local stakeholders who might be affected – communities, property owners, businesses, etc. -before doing work that might have an impact on a historic property.

However, in 2004, the U.S. Department of Transportation made highway systems exempt from the process. Section 106 could still, however, be applied to any future alterations to the Eisenhower, said Morris. The commission will also explore whether the ramps could be made local or national landmarks.

“The goal is to try to prevent any further expansion of the Eisenhower encroaching on areas that are of historical or architectural significance, and there are a lot of those along the Eisenhower,” Morris said.

The issue is further muddled, Morris said, because it’s unclear exactly who owns the ramps-though the CTA and Illinois Department of Transportation would likely have a say.

Barwin said he hopes the commission can have a recommendation before the village board by late fall. IDOT does not have any immediate plans to expand the expressway.

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