Village and city officials joined neighborhood organizers for a tour of North Avenue last week in an effort to refocus attention on the struggling commercial corridor.
Judith Alexander, chairman of the North Avenue Zoning and Development Advisory Committee (NAZDAC) and a member of the North Avenue Neighbors Association, organized the walk with trustees, officials and 29th Ward Ald. Deborah Graham.
“It’s hard to walk along North Avenue; there are a lot of properties that are not being as well maintained as they could,” she said.
The problems along North Avenue are numerous, she said, from a neglected streetscape littered with garbage to vacant buildings not maintained by their owners. Some areas of the commercial corridor are better than others, though, particularly the stretch that runs between Harlem Avenue and Oak Park Avenue.
That’s because of a $5.3 million streetscape improvement project split between the city and the village of Oak Park that started in 2007. The project was expected to extend to Harlem Boulevard, but Chicago pulled funding for the project in 2008, leaving the Oak Park to Harlem stretch unfinished.
Tom Drebenstedt, a NAZDAC board member, said the streetscape project initiated by the city added planters and street lamps on both sides of the avenue and put in raised planters down the center of the street.
“The biggest mystery to us is that once the landscaping was completed it was never maintained,” Drebenstedt said.
Trustees and village officials picked garbage out of planters and off the parkway last week during the tour, but little could be done about weeds and the emaciated greenery growing there. Drebenstedt said he believes that if neither the city nor the village is able to maintain the parkways and planters, then maybe a taxation district known as a “special service area” needs to be created to hire outside contractors to do the work.
“We need to maintain this thing,” he said.
Alexander said that when the parkways are not maintained, “it gives the impression of neglect.”
Buildings along the strip also sit in various stages of neglect, several with boarded up windows and weeds growing out of the sidewalks leading up to long-vacant doorways. The doorway to one vacant building near Harlem was covered in bird droppings. From another, the scent of mold emanated.
Alexander said the village and city should write code violations for businesses and building owners who are not maintaining their property.
“I don’t think we have a lot of building inspectors in Oak Park, and the ones we do have are very, very busy, so I’m not casting aspersions on anybody,” she said. “But these are things they can do right away that would make North Avenue look a lot better.”
Alexander said empty storefronts and neglected parkways are just part of the challenge in revitalizing North Avenue. The busy street is short on parking for businesses, and the parking that does exist can be difficult to negotiate.
She said drivers put their safety at risk because they must open their car doors into traffic when exiting on the driver’s side. Giving parking spaces an extra foot would make a big difference in bringing shoppers to the area.
“The harder it is to park and the harder it is to walk (along North Avenue) the harder it is to patronize North Avenue businesses,” she said.
Chicago’s 29th Ward Ald. Deborah Graham got firsthand experience trying to exit her vehicle when joining the walking tour from the north side of the avenue. Just after exiting her car, a vehicle in oncoming traffic slammed on its brakes and laid on the horn.
“I was getting out of the car to join the walk and take part in the discussion,” Graham recalled in a telephone interview. “I went to the back of the car to stand and the person honked.”
Graham said revitalization of North Avenue will remain a challenge until vacancies are filled with quality businesses. She said the avenue is a mishmash of strip malls and commercial space right off the street, creating inconsistency for shoppers.
“There are business strips set off the street, and they change the texture and appearance of the street,” she said, noting that the malls create a “large block of area where it’s no longer a friendly and walkable strip.”
“As attractive as [strip malls once were], it created a dead space,” she said.
Alexander said NAZDAC is currently working to complete a walkability study with the Active Transportation Alliance, a nonprofit organization that works to establish bike lanes and bike trails. The study aims to show how the shortage of crosswalks, benches along North Avenue and the difficulty in crossing the street, among other factors, discourages pedestrian foot traffic.
Alexander said once the walkability study is complete, NAZDAC and the ACA will send the findings to the village, the city, the Chicago Department of Transportation and the Illinois Department of Transportation to illustrate the need for improvements to the corridor.
She noted that Chicago is applying for an IDOT grant to study North Avenue and “establish an overall vision and recommendations for every single parcel” along the commercial corridor.
Village President Anan Abu-Taleb agreed that something needs to be done with the corridor but noted that planners should focus their efforts on a few blocks at a time to help attract business.
Graham agreed that a plan is needed but might be put into place in multiple phases. “It’s a reasonable thing when you’re talking about what the village or the city is trying to come up with on their own,” she said.