Business Districts is a hot topic in and around Oak Park and River Forest these days.  What are they? How do they function?  How can improvements benefit both our residents and business owners? 

Let’s start with semantics.  We call Oak Park’s neighborhood commercial centers “business districts,” but really we are talking about a geographic area with concentrated commercial activity.  They are not “designated Business Districts” per the Illinois Business District Act.  That economic development tool must be created via ordinance and provides municipalities with specific powers within defined geographic boundaries. 

Our business districts (with the exception of Downtown Oak Park, which we’ll talk about next week) are much more loosely defined and are more commercial area and brand than legal district.

Oak Park claims twelve commercial business districts but only Downtown Oak Park has legally defined borders and is governed by a special ordinance.  What about the other eleven?  These districts are as unique as their neighborhoods, reflecting the diversity of our Village.  Each has a different culture, feel, mix of shops and balance between commercial and residential. 

The eleven districts developed organically over time. Boundaries are loosely defined and imply no special municipal governance.  In fact, they rely on volunteer management.  The commercial districts may overlap with the TIF districts, historic districts or zoning districts.  But, they may not.

Grouping neighboring businesses together under a business district name and brand makes sense for advertising, marketing, development, tourism and zoning (think Bucktown, SoHo, Lincoln Park).  Sometimes a business district can drive its own community flavor and vibe.  Other times, the district reflects the character of the neighborhood around it, much like a parish or a school district or the dozens of big city neighborhoods. 

Our business districts try to convey a sense of neighborhood – with evolving personalities and character.  They work best when the commercial and residential pieces come together to generate a vibrant micro-economy that suits the surrounding built environment and needs of the community around it.

Next week, we’ll talk about how the districts organize and operate.

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Cathy Yen

Cathy Yen is the Executive Director of the Oak Park River Forest Chamber of Commerce.  She has lived in Oak Park for 21 years and done business locally, first as a retailer and then as a small business...