It is not a corner that says “welcome.” Not a welcome to Chicago, to Cicero or to Oak Park, the three towns that, unhappily, come together at Austin Boulevard and Roosevelt Road.
There’s a bodega, a currency exchange, a storefront gambling emporium and, Oak Park’s contribution to the gateway grimness, a now-abandoned branch bank parking lot.
But Taco Bell, which has seemingly hung a star on its desire to open an almost-24-hour-a-day fast-food joint in Oak Park, comes before the Zoning Board of Appeals on Jan. 8 with its plans. Every application that includes a drive-thru is, by ordinance, a special use, requiring the zoning board to sign off. Beyond the drive-thru, though, are requested variances that would, like every fast-fooder, allow the building to be set back from the street to allow for parking and a drive-thru. Current code calls for 60 percent of street frontage to be occupied by a building not a parking lot. Since this is a block-long rectangle, that is going to prove to be a difficult code to meet.
We’ve got nothing particular against Taco Bell — besides their food, of course. But this would be a moment for neighbors, maybe through the SEOPCO community group, to start advocating for their troubled commercial street. This could be a moment for the village board to say, “Roosevelt Road is part of Oak Park, too.”
There are reports that village staff already successfully discouraged a gas station/car wash/mini-mart from locating on this old US Bank property. There are rumblings that maybe village government is considering strategic land acquisitions east on Roosevelt to control future development. There are multiple sites between Austin and Harvey that would be prime for such a strategy. Yes, we understand that Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb and the village board are rightly proud to have only recently sold off the last of the properties the village had acquired somewhat haphazardly over recent decades. But targeted, short-term buys in support of one of Oak Park’s most vibrant and diverse residential communities — the Irving School neighborhood — makes sense. In addition to the old bank site, there is the recently shuttered and nearly block-long Associated Tire business that needs reclaiming.
Roosevelt Road needs advocates using a model exactly like the North Avenue District on the village’s opposite border. That group has built alliances in Chicago’s Galewood neighborhood, has coaxed Oak Park’s leaders and Chicago Alderman Chris Taliaferro into cooperation, has used both a carrot and a stick approach to celebrate the real achievements underway on North Avenue while also turning screws when necessary.
Roosevelt Road offers the same challenges and the same opportunities.
The moment for declaring it a priority comes now at the intersection of Roosevelt and Austin.