It has been decades in the making, but the Oak Park Arts District is coming into its own.
The little business district that was once defined as struggling, fledgling, up-and-coming even, is almost full up with restaurants, shops and galleries.
It’s a day that Laura Maychruk — president of the Oak Park Arts District, owner of Buzz Café, 905 S. Lombard Ave., and a real estate broker with Gullo & Associates — thought might never come.
Maychruk opened The Buzz, a restaurant and coffee shop with an artsy appeal — the walls of the shop are lined with paintings and works by local artists and the cafe frequently holds poetry nights and other art-focused events — in 1998, back when many of the storefronts in the district were vacant.
She says so many new businesses have opened up in the district, which runs along Harrison from Austin Boulevard to South Elmwood Avenue, that she’s having trouble keeping track.
“I can’t even remember all of the new businesses,” she said in a recent interview.
Among the new ones that have opened since the beginning of last year are: MORA Asian Kitchen, 201 Harrison St.; Rare Bird Preserves, 211 Harrison St.; Nature Yoga Sanctuary & Café, 146 Harrison St.; Happy Apple Pie Shop, 226 Harrison St.; District Kitchen and Tap, 220 Harrison St. And that’s just a sampling of what’s happening in the business district.
Four new townhouses — known as Flexhouse and built by developer Bob Ranquist — also are being completed in the 200 block of Harrison Street.
Maychruk is upping her own game as well at The Buzz, completing a costly renovation of the business. The dining area looks largely the same, but Maychruk has invested tens of thousands of dollars updating lights, electrical, plumbing, floors and walls, among other renovations.
She says the key to the district’s success is the departure of Chris Kleronomos, who owned several of the storefronts along Harrison and left them vacant for years. The six buildings owned by Kleronomos were purchased by Harrison Street Ventures LLC in 2015.
Kleronomos still has a minority ownership stake in the properties — it was never disclosed how large — but has no decision-making authority over how they are marketed.
A recent walk along Harrison Street revealed new life in the area. Foot traffic is more common these days and the district is becoming the destination Maychruk and others had always envisioned.
Jason Morales, owner of MORA Asian Kitchen, said his 85-seat restaurant opened in September and has been at full capacity.
“It’s been really fantastic,” he said.
So fantastic, he said, he’s planning to open another restaurant across the street at the corner of Lombard and Harrison.
“I want to do a taco joint,” he said.
The concept entails tacos inspired by cities around the world. Paris, Rome, Sydney, and Chicago, of course, are all in the running, Morales said. The Chicago taco likely will be based on the Italian beef sandwiches that originated in the Windy City, he said.
“The layout will probably be one giant bar, and the bar will do cocktails and drinks as well as the tacos,” he said.
Morales hopes to have the new place opened before the end of the year.
Next door to MORA is Rare Bird Preserves, which offers fruit preserves, jams, jellies, scone mixes, and other products.
Owner Elizabeth Madden opened the shop on Sept. 22 and already is holding classes on topics like sourdough bread baking. That two-hour class is scheduled for Nov. 17 and will be led by a local bread baker, said Madden, who has already gotten a lot of support from the surrounding community as her business gets up and running. A lot of it, so far, has come from patrons looking to put together gift packages for loved ones. “Curating little gifts” for house-warming parties, kids going to college, and other events is a specialty at Rare Bird.