It was maybe eight years ago. A meeting at the Cheney Mansion for village officials to present their plan for major infrastructure work and streetscaping along Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street. It was also the first time I’d ever seen Anan Abu-Taleb, owner of Maya del Sol, as a potential political force. A sort of Howard Beale kind of force complete with shouting and rumpus-making. 

The looks on the faces of the village hall folks were incredulous — and pissed. They wanted the meeting over and never to see this angry business owner in a public meeting again. 

They had a point. The plan to dig up Oak Park Avenue and replace 100-year-old water and sewer pipes had been in discussions for a long while. And the board of the local business association, of which I was and am a vice president, knew all about that plan and had been pushing to have the above ground streetscaping work done at the same time. 

The future mayor, who felt blind-sided by the news of the months-long reconstruction project right in front of his restaurant, seemed to be having flashbacks to a similar infrastructure project in front of another of his restaurants in another town. That he had a representative on the business association board, that the Journal had long been writing about the aging pipes under the downtown business districts did not placate him.

Eight years later, the rotting pipes under Oak Park Avenue still mainly hold water and the 40-year-old streetscaping — bricks and lights, sidewalks and curb cuts — just gets older and bumpier. The attention of the village has shifted from Oak Park Avenue to Lake Street where the pipes generally are newer, the streetscaping is about as worn out, and a lot of new construction has taken place.

Now the issue has wended its way through lots of staff meetings, various ad hoc committees, some engineering and design consultants, and arrived recently before the village board with a quite stunning price tag of $18.8 million. That covers some modest infrastructure work, streetscaping from Harlem to Euclid and repaving of the street from Harlem to Austin. 

(While a lot of the infrastructure work on Lake was accomplished during the malling and unmalling of Downtown Oak Park 40 years ago, there is, according to the village engineer, the ground zero of plumbing dysfunction on Lake between Oak Park and Euclid. That small stretch of street will be torn up for weeks — or months — at some point.)

As village trustees figured out, the bulk of the money requested is for what goes on top of the pipes not what is going on underground. Initial estimates put the pipes and paving at less than $3 million of the overall cost estimate. The new, more chintzy village board has asked staff to come back with cheaper options soon. 

Truth is that Lake Street looks like hell if you’re a pedestrian, and our village has cast its lot with pedestrians, bikers, and new residents in tall buildings downtown. The bricks are buckled, the curbs are cracked, the street furniture looks like it came from a municipal recycling warehouse. This street needs work. 

But $18.8 million in work? Not hardly. Somewhere in the middle between the heated bluestone walkways, the granite curbs and the brick street of Marion and the current state of decay on Lake is a wide and welcome middle place.

Sidewalks made of concrete. Curbs made of concrete. Streets lustrous with asphalt. And then some ruffles and flourishes of brick and bump-outs at key intersections, some decent benches and even curly-que light fixtures that streetscape designers seem to love.

Oak Park needs to invest in its downtown area. But overpaying is not a virtue.

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Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...