Corner of Harlem and South as it currently stands

A couple of years ago, Oak Park had grandiose plans in hand to reinvent two key pieces of the village’s downtown. Those ideas have been in hibernation ever since because of the sluggish economy, but officials say Oak Park could jolt those talks back to life by the end of this year.

The projects in question were originally planned for parking lots at Harlem Avenue and South Boulevard, and Lake Street just east of Harlem. Oak Park held competitions approximately five years ago, trying to find developers to build on those sites. Officials say the economy may be perking up now, and an agreement with those developers may happen soon.

“There does seem to be some loosening of those financial restraints, so we are seeing more activity,” Loretta Daly, business services manager for the village, told trustees on Monday. “The developers we are talking to have demonstrated an ability to survive through these changes, and they’re continuing to demonstrate financial viability.”

Chicago-based Morningside Equities Group was picked by the village in a competitive process in 2006 to reinvent the parking lot at the southeast corner of Harlem Avenue and South Boulevard. They proposed an eight-story building with 96 condos and first-floor retail, but the project was delayed indefinitely in the spring of 2008, as the housing market crashed.

During a discussion of economic development in Downtown Oak Park on Monday, Village Planner Craig Failor said Oak Park continues to talk with Morningside behind the scenes. They’ve shifted their ideas and are now eyeing apartments while still proposing retail on the ground floor.

In a different competition, Oak Park picked another Chicago group, Clark Street Development, in 2008 to build on the former Colt building site, which is now a Lake Street parking lot. But Clark Street’s partner in the project — Virginia-based AvalonBay Communities, which was to develop 196 apartments on the site — dropped out in early 2009.

Now, Failor said, Clark Street is considering a different proposal with only retail on the Colt site, which now includes a two-story office building that Oak Park recently bought at 1133 Westgate.

Failor and Daly told trustees that Oak Park continues to talk to Clark Street and Morningside privately, with the hope of reaching “term sheet” agreements by the end of the year that could eventually lead to a legally binding partnership between Oak Park and the two developers.

Afterward, Oak Park is planning to solicit alternate proposals for the Colt site, as it is required to do under tax increment financing laws.

The projects came up Monday night as part of a discussion of whether Oak Park needs to update its downtown master plan, a roadmap put together by a consultant in 2005, laying out how the village should reinvent its main shopping district.

The master plan identifies 26 projects that Oak Park can undertake in its downtown. Three of those have been finished thus far, including the village spending more than $6 million to spruce up the 100 block of North Marion with brick streets and bluestone sidewalks. With nine other projects under construction or consideration, Oak Park hopes it will have close to 50 percent of the master plan finished by 2015, Failor said.

Willis Johnson, owner of the Lake Theatre, and Downtown Oak Park Executive Director Pat Zubak said the village should be decking out Lake Street with decorative elements, to help link it with the business district on Oak Park Avenue.

“The highest priority at this point needs to be the streetscaping of Lake Street from Harlem to Euclid,” Johnson said in a phone interview.

Johnson also spoke of concerns about parking in the village’s downtown, with the garage at Lake and Forest shrinking down to 300 public parking spaces instead of 340, as part of a tower planned on the corner. (The downtown master plan originally envisioned 750 public parking spaces as part of the project.)

Trustee Ray Johnson, though, said he thinks Oak Park should focus more on getting people to bike and ride the train to its main shopping districts rather than building hundreds of new parking spots, as called for in the plan.

“I think we need to create some way to change the mindset of Oak Parkers to think about different ways of getting places and experiencing the downtown and all of Oak Park through different means,” he said.

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