The battle was between saving a few bucks and protecting the historic character of an Oak Park building, Monday night at the village board meeting. Only this time, elected officials were talking about village hall, not some pedigreed home on Forest Avenue.
Village officials are looking at installing a geothermal heating system in part of village hall, 123 Madison St. That addition would involve drilling holes in the ground to heat or cool the council chambers by tapping steady temperatures deep underground.
But doing so would require building an enclosed structure outside village hall, near the northeast corner of Madison Street and Taylor Avenue, across from McDonald’s. The building is considered of historic significance, designed by architect Harry Weese in the 1970s.
Some on the village board advocated spending an extra $90,000 on the new heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system to bury the mechanics underground and protect the historic appearance of the building. That would bring the project total up to $305,000.
How can Oak Park ask owners of historic homes to take extra steps to preserve their character, and then turn around and alter village hall? asked Trustee John Hedges.
“I think we have to be careful of how we position ourselves; we are requiring people to do things that we, in fact, aren’t going to do ourselves,” Hedges said.
On the other side, Trustee Ray Johnson pointed out that village hall isn’t in a historic district, and does not have any sort of local or national landmark status. He thinks Oak Park should pocket the $90,000 and pay $215,000 to build the structure above ground.
“I don’t see this as the same at all,” Johnson said. “First of all, the building is not a local landmark, nor is it on the national register. So those requirements don’t apply. It’s not in a historic district either. So this really has to be looked at from a standpoint of, do we want to spend an extra $90,000 or not?”
But Oak Park could pursue local historic status for village hall if it chose to, according to Chris Morris, chair of the Historic Preservation Commission. Officials haven’t yet because the property was built in 1975, and hasn’t reached 50 years of age, as required by local ordinances. The commission could pursue national landmark status for the building if the village were so inclined.
“We felt like it’s certainly worthy of receiving that designation,” Morris said.
Another wrinkle is that Oak Park is angling to use a $72,000 Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant from the federal government. Morris said she reached out to a friend who works for the feds and learned that the addition likely wouldn’t meet their standards to use the grant, since it would be visible from the street and large in size.
Trustee Colette Lueck expressed hesitance about designating village hall as a landmark, thereby handcuffing the village’s abilities to make any changes to the building in the future.
“If we’re in a process that gives us no option but to spend $90,000 additional dollars, I think that’s a process that does not serve us well,” Lueck said.
Trustees voted 7-0 to spend only $82,000 of the contract to start digging wells for the geothermal system. That’s because the grant money had to be allocated by next Monday, March 19, or the village would risk losing it.
The village board held off on deciding between the underground or above ground options. Village staff is also exploring a third possibility, which would mean moving the mechanical work slightly east, and burying it mostly underground. Public Works Director John Wielebnicki said that option could cost out somewhere between the other choices.
Trustee Adam Salzman expressed frustration that, for the second week in a row, village board members had to make a rushed decision because of upcoming deadlines from federal grants. Johnson suggested that Oak Park might give up the federal money because of those added demands.
“I’m concerned that this sort of pressurized decision-making atmosphere has become something of a pattern,” Salzman said. “I think it distorts and disrupts our ability to have an orderly and informative discussion about these things.”