Oak Park has a well-deserved ethos as a unique community. Whether we agree on our reasons, most of us share the feeling that (taxes aside) there’s no place in Chicagoland we’d rather live. 

A former neighbor, who recently relocated to a suburb just to the west, told me he hadn’t anticipated the difficulty of adjusting to a profoundly different environment, or appreciated the degree to which our built environment enhanced his time here. That prompted me to think about a simple, unpretentious Midwestern town with a sensational built environment: Columbus, Indiana.

The similarities and contrasts between Columbus and Oak Park are intriguing. Despite being smaller, with about 44,000 residents, Columbus’ reputation for architecture rivals ours. Its Victorian homes are less splendid, but recent additions profoundly differentiate us. 

In the 1950s, responding to the post-war baby boom, Columbus had the acreage to add a public school. A local business leader was an art aficionado who had his residence and vacation homes built by significant architects. Fearing that the new school would follow a trend of “mediocrity” in recent buildings, he formed a foundation to pay the architectural fee for the school, contingent upon selection of an architect worthy of creating an eminent building. The result was a spectacular success.

Since then, every public building in Columbus has followed the process. A post office, a fire station, more schools, and even bridges and public sculpture feature stunning designs by an amazing array of architects and artists of international renown. Local companies and individuals of means now routinely seek good design for their buildings and homes. As word spread. Columbus became an unlikely architectural high-flyer, generating world-wide acclaim, local pride and enthusiasm, and a tourist destination.

After a trek to Columbus, it is disappointing to return home to our sad state of development. A look at what’s transpired in recent years clearly demonstrates the issues. We can tout the glory of our historic structures because they were well thought out and well done. I cherish my 1883 Queen Anne but know that we cannot rely on beautiful old buildings to attract millennials, retain a growing crop of senior citizens, or broaden tourism. Yet a vibrant approach to development can accomplish all of this, and offer a new source of pride for our community.

Let us take inspiration from Columbus to find our own way forward to develop a sustainable strategy for Oak Park that supports our community values. If we value racial and ethnic diversity we must offer housing that supports it. If we want a vibrant downtown area, we need to attract people for business and pleasure. If we care about ecological practices, we need to enshrine them in our building code. And if we want to live in a beautiful environment, we need to engage architects who are up to the task of creating it for us.

The corner of Lake and Forest is a pivotal location that can demonstrate our values and instill pride in what we can accomplish. It presents an unusual opportunity for a striking and functional gateway to Downtown Oak Park that benefits residents, business and tourism alike. 

I hope we can find creative approaches to mine its potential. To relegate this high-profile corner to a mediocre apartment building is short-sighted at best. Let’s figure out how to do something stunning here that will beautify the area, foster long-term economic growth, and set us on a path for development that can lead us into the future.

Carrie Hageman is a resident of Oak Park.

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