Computer rendering of the Avenue business district at Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street after being bricked.

A split Oak Park village board gave the green-light late Monday night, paving the way for a possible $43 million project that could completely change the community’s main shopping strip.

Oak Park has tried and failed twice already in attempting to grab $26 million in federal grants to deck out areas on or near Lake Street and Oak Park Avenue in bricks and bluestone sidewalks. The next round of federal funding is coming up in just a few weeks, and Village President David Pope urged elected officials to say yes Monday to spending $108,000 to further flesh out their plans, hoping to better compete with the dozens of communities vying for the same pot of money.

Trustees voted 4-3 in favor of the move, as some board members said they needed more info and time before setting things in motion. Trustee Bob Tucker likened the decision to buying “fancier cufflinks” thinking it’s going to help you ace a job interview.

“We’re making a much bigger decision, I think, if we’re about to get into the poker game here with another $108,000 on the table,” he said. “That’s a major step, and I don’t really feel comfortable that we’ve had all the conversations to get me to that point right now.”

Oak Park is angling for dollars from the TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) program, which is entering its fourth year. Last December, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded $511 million in grants to 46 projects, three in Illinois. Competition was fierce, as some $14.29 billion was requested from the program.

Winners in Illinois included $20 million to eliminate slow zones on the Blue Line and start a bike sharing program in Chicago, $13.85 million to build a transportation station in Alton, and $10.4 million to reconstruct a couple of miles of Illinois Route 83.

Pope told board members Monday that he recently took a trip to D.C. and learned from transportation officials that Oak Park’s application might have risen to the top if it was closer to “shovel ready.” Thus, the village is spending the $108,000 on a no-bid contract to have Chicago-based Lakota Group work up plans for Lake Street, from Harlem to Euclid, decked out in bricks.

Lakota has previously done work for the village, including preparing plans for the similar reinvention of the 100 blocks of North and South Marion. There, the village invested more than $11 million to add brick streets, bluestone sidewalks, upgraded sewers and decorative benches and planters.

Pope pointed to the village’s downtown master plan, a roadmap put together by a consultant in 2005, suggesting ways to redevelop Oak Park’s main shopping district. That plan suggested spending $68 million on such street upgrades as a way to unify disparate parts of the downtown, and spur private investment in the area.

Oak Park would need to come up with its own $17 million to augment any federal grant. And Pope pointed to several possible sources, including private developers, sales tax revenues and downtown property tax dollars that the village is getting from the settlement of a recent lawsuit. Oak Park already needs to spend some $7 million to fix aging sewer systems beneath the streets in its main shopping district, officials said.

“The work is going to need to be done, whether or not we get a grant,” said Trustee Ray Johnson, who voted yes along with trustees Glenn Brewer and Colette Lueck. “You can simply walk down some of the sidewalk areas and see that there are major infrastructure improvements that are critically needed.”

But others, including Tucker and trustees John Hedges and Adam Salzman, wanted to hold off on making the decision until they received further details. Hedges questioned whether Oak Park would get the return on its $17 million investment when a recent report showed that downtown storefronts are about 95 percent occupied.

“The businesses are already there and producing. I don’t know if we’re going to get better businesses,” he said, later adding, “I’m not saying this might not be a good program. I just don’t know that we’ve spent enough time talking about it, and I don’t know if we’ve gotten enough community input into it to say we’re going to put $17 million of our local funds into this. That’s a big, big decision.”

Pope acknowledged that there was discussion to be had, but said Oak Park is short on time with the TIGER deadline on March 19. He said Lakota’s process of putting together plans will involve several meetings, and trustees will have to take a vote next year to commit the local dollars toward the project, if the village wins the federal grants. Oak Park expects to hear by June if it has won a grant.

“While all of us would love to have perfect information in making every decision, there are times when we just don’t have it, and we don’t have the ability to have it, and we need to make the best call about what we think best represents the interest of the community,” Pope said.

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