Let’s start in 1971. It will seem eerily familiar. I promise.
Our elementary school district was looking for cash. Its headquarters were housed in an old school building it deemed obsolete. That school building, the handsome Lowell School, was sitting on what was recognized as a prime piece of real estate, the southeast corner of Lake Street and Forest Avenue, right on the edge of the downtown. Of course, these days that historic 1924 school would never have been sold for demolition. But in 1971 we were at the tail end of the post-war, modern-is-everything phase.
And so, District 97 sold the 3-acre Lowell School site to the highest bidder. That would be Jonas Stankus, a developer with plans so grand and financing so skinny, that he would make today’s developers look like pikers.
Stankus proposed building a pair of 55-story high-rises on the site. Twin 55-story towers in a town where the tallest building at that point was the beautiful Art Deco Medical Arts Building on Lake Street. That was audacious. And also problematic for so many reasons.
In December 2003, as Oak Parkers furiously debated whether a proposed development on Harlem Avenue — then called Whiteco and now known mainly as Trader Joe’s — could really be 17 stories, the Journal sent Katharine Grayson, one of our best reporters, into the archives to compare and contrast Stankus and Whiteco. Reading her long report is like reading the story today on page one.
While there was plenty of vocal opposition from the beginning, the Stankus project also had notable supporters. The main arguments of supporters, many of them political leaders, were economic. Oak Park was just at the start of the experiment with racial integration and history was clear that, with any attempt at integration, economic investment would dry up. Having a developer ready to spend $30-40 million in Oak Park was seen as a beacon to other investors. Also, there was concern about the tax base declining even as Oak Park’s village government faced its first-ever deficit.
Some things never change.
The opposition, according to Grayson’s interviews and readings of old articles from the Oak Leaves, had many points to make. It would be impossible to fill the nearly 1,200 apartments planned in the twin towers, some said, echoing current opposition to high-rises. There were concerns over traffic congestion and too many dogs. Some objected to the architecture as cold and modern.
Here’s a quote from a citizen at a public hearing that seems both dated and current. “I never saw a fiction story like I’ve heard tonight. Why, if someone smoked marijuana and had a dream like that, we’d put them in jail.”
Ultimately though the opposition to Stankus coalesced around Unity Temple and the shadows the 56-story towers would cast over the Wright landmark. Same argument that last week led Oak Park’s political leadership to nix a proposed 28-story tower just east of Unity Temple. Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb said the proposal from Golub and Company was too tall and that Unity Temple had to be protected.
Conspiracy-minded neighbors believe this is all a ruse to get an eventual OK on a 20-story building which will be touted as a compromise. We’ll see. Clearly something is going to get built on the current site of a bank drive-thru.
Eventually Jonas Stankus scaled back his plan to twin 37-story towers. He got an OK from the village at that height and actually began to dig the foundation before his weak financing dried up. Christine Vernon, a critic of Stankus and a critic of high-rises today, helped put the kibosh on federal backing of the financing Stankus had lined up.
So instead of being forever known as the developer of Stankus Towers, old Jonas’ name became attached to the decade-long, and two-story deep foundation we always enjoyed calling the “Stankus Hole.”
There will always be tension between new development and the current built environment. It’s natural and healthy. I’d argue for more height over the squat ugliness of what I still call Whiteco or, to honor its resemblance to modern Russian architecture, the Pravda Building. And I’d say of all the new construction underway, it is the massive sameness of the not-so-tall project at Harlem and South Boulevard that is most overwhelming.
But in the case of Unity Temple, we have only so many international landmarks to protect.