Big buildings and big changes in village government were among Oak Park’s top stories in 2019, with the election of a new village board of trustees and the construction of two new high-rises in the downtown area.
While those stories and others like them (see Golub) loomed large this year, smaller news items – like the creation of the Val Camilletti Memorial Mural along the raised Union Pacific rail line on South Boulevard and the installation of a digital marquee at the classic Lake Theatre, 1022 Lake St. – also captured the attention of readers. Here’s a rundown of the top stories of the year.
Oak Park grows upward
Oak Park’s skyline was again forever changed in 2019 with the completion of two new luxury apartment buildings – the 18-story, 265-unit Albion building, 1000 Lake St., and the 12-story, 250-unit Eleven33 building at 1133 South Blvd.
Those opposed to the high-rises scored a win in early 2019, forcing developer Golub & Co. to abandon its plans to build a 28-story luxury apartment building half a block away from the Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece Unity Temple.
Opponents argued that the high-rise would cast a shadow over Wright’s architectural treasure. The outcry prompted Oak Park village trustees to oppose the building’s height before it even made to the board table.
Most surprisingly, perhaps, was the decision by pro-development Mayor Abu-Taleb to publicly disavow the plan in late 2018.
“I do not envision, nor do I support, a 28-story building on this site,” Abu-Taleb said in December of last year. Following the developer’s decision in March to pull the plug on the project, Abu-Taleb lamented, “I wish we were able to find a way to say yes.”
New village board,
Oak Park’s municipal elections took center stage this year with the most hotly contested Oak Park village board race in recent memory – 11 candidates ran for three seats, following the dissolution of Oak Park’s longstanding and once powerful Village Manager Association (VMA) in 2018.
The VMA recruited and slated candidates for public office for decades and consistently saw their endorsed candidates win elections; its departure left a vacuum, opening the door to a flood of political hopefuls.
Trustee James Taglia, who was appointed to the board in 2017 when a seat became vacant, retained his seat, and political newcomers Arti Walker-Peddakotla and Susan Buchanan won seats once held by Bob Tucker and Andrea Button, neither of whom sought reelection.
Just prior to leaving office, the outgoing board passed an affordable housing ordinance requiring that 10 percent of units in new construction be affordable in developments along most of the CTA el lines and on Madison Street. The ordinance also allows developers to not include affordable units and instead pay $100,000 per unit into a fund used for affordable housing projects.
The new board got off to a contentious start this year at its first meeting in May, with Walker-Peddakotla criticizing the board over its unwillingness to adopt a revamped diversity statement, which declares the body’s commitment to equity and inclusion. The new language, proposed by the village’s Community Relations Commission, stated, among other things, that the board would work to “break down systems of oppression in order to seek fair opportunities and outcomes for all residents.”
Walker-Peddakotla criticized the board for choosing not to put the proposed language up for a vote and for not moving forward with an equity policy, also advanced by the commission. “Your discomfort is exactly what you need to feel because your comfort comes at my, at our expense,” she said.
The issue reached a fevered pitch months later in October, when Trustee Buchanan called out white, male members of the board, stating: “Why are you arguing what is a system of oppression? You’ve never experienced one, so shut up!”
Buchanan also told Oak Park Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb, who is a native of Palestine, “Your skin is white enough,” when he tried to intervene. The story went viral on the internet after being shared on the conspiracy website Infowars, resulting in threats to Buchanan, who later apologized for the outburst.
Trustee Dan Moroney, one of the trustees Buchanan told to “shut up,” made multiple media appearances in the aftermath, including a spot on Dan Proft’s controversial “Morning Answer” radio show. That particular appearance landed him in hot water with many members of the community, who subsequently aired their grievances with him in public comment at an Oct. 21 board meeting.
Frank Lloyd Wright still talk
of the town
Villagers were up in arms earlier in the year over a plan by the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust to demolish a historic home and alter another adjacent to the famed architect’s home and studio, 951 Chicago Ave., to make room for a new visitor and education center. The plan was roundly opposed by preservation advocates and unanimously rejected by the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission, prompting the trust to abandon the proposal in early September.
It’s not the only time Wright’s name was in the news this year. The late architect made international headlines in July, when Oak Park’s Unity Temple, 875 Lake St., was named one of eight Wright buildings to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Chicago’s Frederick C. Robie House also made the list.
Big business in the village
Unity Temple wasn’t the only Oak Park institution to make big news this year. Byline Bank completed its $40 million purchase of Community Bank of Oak Park and River Forest in April.
And Oak Park’s oldest business, H.J. Mohr & Sons Co., closed up shop and its site went on the market for $7 million. The concrete manufacturer occupied a 3.29-acre plot of land at the intersection of Harlem and Maple for decades.
The property was put up for sale after the owners rejected a proposal by the Village of Oak Park to purchase the land for $4.4 million.
Another Oak Park institution that found itself under new ownership in 2019 was West Suburban Medical Center, which was sold by Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare to national hospital operator Pipeline Health. It is the fifth time the hospital has been sold since 1996.
News out of the village
Buildings and businesses weren’t the only big news items this year in Oak Park. The Oak Park Police Department kicked off the year with some news of its own, swearing in LaDon Reynolds as chief of police. He succeeded Anthony Ambrose who took a leave of absence in 2018 after being diagnosed with nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, also known as NASH.
The village also grabbed residents’ attention in January with the reversal of a decision by Village Manager Cara Pavlicek to remove the village clerk as a first point of contact for Freedom of Information Act requests, instead sending all requests to the Village Attorney’s Office. The reversal came after residents and advocacy groups like Oak Park Call to Action called foul on the plan.
Closures and saviors
The hearts of music lovers throughout the entire Chicago area broke and reassembled in a matter of days when beloved record store Val’s halla announced its impending closure on Facebook in early November. Then, days later, Val’s announced that the store would remain open, after a River Forest resident saved the day at the last minute.
Hearts broke again in December when Oak Park staple Winberie’s announced the restaurant would close Dec. 28. In many Facebook posts, the impassioned public bemoaned the loss of the restaurant and shared memories of good times spent there.
Oak Park gets its 15 minutes
Oak Park could soon be on the national stage with a lawsuit headed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The case comes from Laura Pekarik, owner of Courageous Bakery, 736 Lake St., who challenged Chicago’s food-truck ordinance, which requires the vehicles to be equipped with a GPS tracker, among other things. Pekarik’s lawyer said in August, following the Illinois Supreme Court decision ruling in favor of the city in May, that the supreme court was a possibility.
The village also might be back in the spotlight sometime in the near future with the news that HBO has been filming in Oak Park for it’s documentary about Oak Park native Michelle McNamara’s posthumously published book “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer.”
Oak Park may become a hot location for Hollywood types, as FX’s hit television show “Fargo” has also been filming in the village. In November, the show transformed the corner of Euclid Avenue and Randolph Street into 1950s Kansas City with beautiful antique cars with vintage Missouri license plates lining the streets.
Wednesday Journal becomes
Finally, Oak Park’s very own independently owned newspaper, yours truly, made some news of its own this year, announcing in September its decision to begin a new era and become a non-profit organization with the establishment of Growing Community Media. The new model follows the lead of a number of news organizations across the country to encourage readers to invest in the news they consume.
“Non-profit journalism is the future of journalism,” Dan Haley, Wednesday Journal Inc. publisher, wrote in September. “It is all around us and being supported by everyday people who know in their bones that life is all about community and that community needs active means to connect and grow.”