First reported 9/2/2010 4:54 p.m.

An aging public garage at the corner of Lake and Forest in Oak Park may be reduced to rubble a little sooner than expected. And in the meantime, the developer planning to build a 20-story hotel and condo tower on the site may need more time to line up financing.

The 340-space garage was built in 1974, and village officials say it’s reaching the end of its useful life. That’s why Village Hall finalized a deal in March to partner with a developer and replace the garage as part of a larger development.

Oak Park wasn’t going to rip down the structure until September 2011, when developer Sertus Capital Partners is required to start construction on its planned 20-story building. The project is slated to include 140 hotel rooms, 85 high-end condos, ground-floor retail space and a 510-space parking garage.

However, Village Hall may need to look at razing the garage even sooner, as taxpayers will need to sink tens of thousands of dollars into the structure to keep it useable, said Village Manager Tom Barwin.

“I could see us easily having to spend $150,000 a year, just to maintain it, and would we be better off just using that investment to clear the site?” he said.

So, Oak Park plans to look closely at the economics to determine whether money could be saved by tearing down the garage and replacing it with a roughly 200-space surface parking lot. The analysis just started last week, he said.

It would cost Oak Park about $450,000 to demolish the garage, and another $100,000 to pave the site over as a parking lot, according to financial estimates given to village trustees last week. Those costs could then be subtracted from the village’s $9.8 million cost to build 300 public parking spaces in a future garage, Barwin said.

Village estimates are that the temporary parking lot would be able to generate just as much revenue in parking fees each year – about $375,000 – and could turn a profit by 2013. Officials also estimate that the garage requires about $224,000 to operate, and will need at least $100,000 a year in “capital investments” to keep it running. Barwin said a chunk of concrete fell off the structure this summer, and an elevator needs to be replaced next year, as freeze-thaw cycles over the years have chipped away at the concrete, open-air garage.

Barwin said it’s unlikely that the village board will make a decision on what to do with the garage until next spring.

Jason Smith – an Oak Park resident, co-owner of The Book Table in the village’s downtown and opponent of the Sertus development – believes it would be a “horrible decision” for Oak Park to knock down the garage.

Smith says his store will fight the demolition whatever way possible, whether by handing out petitions, giving customers trustees’ phone numbers or even chaining himself to the garage.

“I think it’s insane – for a project that may not come online for years, or may never even come on line – to demolish that parking structure, which is used by so many of the customers on this side of downtown Oak Park,” Smith said. “It is just a horrible decision.”

David Barsotti, an Oak Park resident and also an opponent of the development, believes the village should leave the garage up, as the community would lose any leverage with the developer by razing it.

“By tearing down the garage now, the village is tying their hands and committing to this project,” he said. “Once they tear it down, they’re going to have to build a new one, regardless.”

Barsotti pointed to a 2002 study that Oak Park had done, showing that maintenance and repairs could extend the garage’s life by another 15 or more years.

“I think it’s an excuse to build this project,” Barsotti said. “No, it’s not a new garage, but it’s not horrible, and if it’s in the condition they say it is and it has to come down, then they neglected the garage.”

Sertus, the owner of the corner parcel between the two wings of the garage, recently demolished the vacant one-story commercial structure on the site, which was formerly home to a pancake restaurant and an independent grocery store. The Chicago-based developer, however, may need an extension from the village, Barwin said, as they’re required to apply for building permits by Dec. 15. The developer has indicated to Village Hall that he may need an extension, though nothing has yet been formally submitted. Sertus principal, Michael Glazier, declined to comment last week.

Most banks want a certain number of condos sold before granting financing to a condo project, Barwin said, no easy feat in the current economic environment.

“The housing bubble and the financial markets had their meltdown, and the financial institutions require presales before they finance,” he said. “So I think he’s still thinking we’re probably a year out from the housing market returning.”

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