It’s a long mile-and-a-half from Austin Boulevard to Harlem. And if you are traveling one of Oak Park’s major commercial east-west streets it is a largely discouraging trip.
Madison Street. Roosevelt Road. North Avenue.
These streets, heavily trafficked though they may be, contain the most vacant land, the most obsolete uses, the least attractive properties in the village. Two of them are borders shared by other municipal governments, always an impediment to planning and progress.
We’d start though with this fundamental point. The future of each of these streets needs to be rethought. Their glory days, to the extent they ever had them, are long past. Madison Street has not been the auto sales mecca of the west suburbs in nearly 50 years. The car dealerships have now been mainly gone for about as long as they were there, giving the street purpose and the village a Cadillac’s worth of tax income. North Avenue’s 1950s gaggle of two-story medical office buildings are not highly sought after. And Roosevelt Road, well, we don’t ever remember going to Roosevelt Road on purpose.
Oak Park’s village government has done an excellent job of rethinking and rezoning Madison Street. Conclusion No. 1: It’s not one street with a single purpose from end to end. The decision, a few years back, to cluster village focus and investment in development from East Avenue to Home made great sense. The reality that the street will never again support commercial use from border to border is dead on. This street needs new purposes. And residential and mixed use are obvious. So go ahead and debate the architecture of the 20 new townhomes at Madison and Home. Luring a major developer to that site is a big win for Oak Park. Scraping the old District 97 headquarters and the former Robinson’s Ribs from the streets is a huge upside.
The likely mixed-use developments on both sides of Madison at Oak Park Avenue are game changers. Let the developer take the risk over whether Oak Park can support a new and improved grocer at that corner. Build it.
Last week Oak Park’s zoning board gave preliminary approval to an expansion of Turano Bakery’s footprint on the Oak Park side of the street. Is the long-established block-long parking lot for bread trucks the highest and best use? No. But remaking that parking lot and adding a corporate office building to Oak Park is a pretty good outcome if the deal is well negotiated.
Alcuin Montessori’s plans to build new on Roosevelt is an outstanding creation of a destination business on a long underused site at Home Avenue.
Solid building blocks.
North Avenue also has bright spots, chief among them the positive energy brought by active community engagement on development projects. Again, the future is not giant Sears stores. It is mixed use, straight up residential and some commercial wins.