Proposed Sertus Lake and Forest rendering

Lake and Forest: the TIF’s last gasp? We don’t know how the Sertus development at that corner will go (if it goes at all — I’m writing this before the board voted on Monday). If approved, however, we have some idea how it will go, based on past experience. Fits and starts, most likely, with plenty of delays. It might end up like the abandoned SoHo development at South & Home (hence So-Ho, get it?), which is dead in the ground, apparently, awaiting some future economic upswing.

SoHo might be this era’s “Stankus Hole,” which only the old-timers around here remember — literally a large hole in the ground where the 100 Forest Place tower now stands. A previous development in the 1970s went nowhere, leaving a deep abyss for years, which seemed the perfect metaphor for our last economic bust (The steam shovel Mary Ann was rumored to be stuck at the bottom).

At least SoHo got something built above ground before the project came to an abrupt and eerily silent halt.

We hope that doesn’t happen at Lake and Forest, but you never know. These are uncertain times.

Or maybe it will go like Whiteco, which is the ugly testament to Soviet architecture rising gloomily above Trader Joe’s. Everyone was sure that project would end up a bust. It took forever, the architecture sucks, and high-end apartments in an age of condos? No way could that succeed. Well, now we’re in the post-condo era and rental apartments look positively prescient. Who’d have guessed? It’s ugly but it got built, it brought in Trader Joe’s, and it may have found a market niche. We’ll see.

Or maybe it will go like the RSC building (1120 Lake St., the one with all the exercisers in the second-floor picture windows on treadmills). RSC stands for Richard S. Curto, the developer who managed to fulfill every negative stereotype pushed by the anti-development forces in town. He struck a deal behind the village board’s back to make Lane Bryant the primary retailer on the ground floor, then when the board balked, he ran to the Chicago media to sully our reputation for tolerance, claiming we discriminate against overweight people. Lovely person. And all that after village government “partnered” with him, using the TIF to make it way easier than he deserved to build a building that has had its share of problems, according to those who bought condos there. Lane Bryant, meanwhile, was a complete mismatch with Oak Park from the start. They were here once before (in the 1960s) and couldn’t cut it. Now they’re pulling out a second time after just five years, leaving a big fat vacancy on Lake Street.

The village obviously didn’t do enough due diligence on that developer. We can only hope the principal at Sertus, Michael Glazier, turns out to have more of a clue. At least he’s talking about spending some money on the 19th Century Charitable Association building and on Austin Gardens across the street. He also has some history in this community, which might make him slightly more sensitive. But it’s hard not to be suspicious after our experiences with Whiteco, Curto and Seymour Taxman.

Taxman, you may recall, inaugurated the “Oak Park-River Forest Development Era,” which is coming up on 20 years old. He built River Forest Town Center (I & II), which could be characterized as “moderately successful,” mostly because of Whole Foods, Walgreens and Panera. But it’s also had plenty of turnover and lots of vacancies. Huge ones.

Meanwhile, the Taxman development on the Oak Park side of Harlem (officially the “Shops of Downtown Oak Park,” a name no one except me remembers) has been “modestly successful,” a shade under “moderately.” They haven’t had as much turnover and or as many vacancies, but none of the shops are major draws like Whole Foods.

Taxman also built up Euclid Avenue between North Boulevard and Lake Street, but that hasn’t gone very well on the retail side — with the exception of another closet-sized Starbucks. And Taxman, of course, left Oak Park in a huff when the preservationists on a previous village board obstructed his efforts to develop the former Colt building site. Both sides looked bad in that exchange. The preservationists took way too long trying to come up with a viable alternative development that might have saved the building, and Taxman said, “My way or the highway.” He took the highway.

We ended up with a very nice parking lot in a very central location that makes shoppers very happy, but the only revenue it generates comes from parking machines.

The upshot is it’s hard to make an overly enthusiastic case for any proposed development in Oak Park, but if this one goes ahead, it’s likely to be the last big project for a while (unless someone surprises us with a proposal for the Colt site, which is rumored but seems unlikely).

How will it go? Well, we know from experience that, if Lake and Forest actually gets built, it will be noisy and messy and take a long time. It will be big. It will bring in retail that will make most of us shrug or scratch our heads in disbelief. It’s not out of the question that one of the new shops will be successful, but probably only one. And if people actually do move into the apartments, it will provide some modest economic benefits and slightly more traffic (pedestrian and motorist).

I’d like to be more upbeat for those in favor of development — or more downbeat for those who oppose development — but based on experience, that’s pretty much how this is going to go.

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