via OPE

We don’t want to engage in idle speculation. We don’t want to extrapolate from a couple of instances. But as 2020 begins, we’re wondering if Oak Park has reached a saturation point on restaurants.

The December closing of the iconic Winberie’s caught everyone by surprise. Maybe we weren’t watching closely enough as the customer count dropped. Maybe the end of a long lease resulted in too steep a rent hike (and rising property taxes fit in that scenario). Maybe the imminent rebuilding of Lake Street down to the dirt was too worrisome.

In a piece today by our Melissa Elsmo, Winberie’s longtime chef Ivy Grant said, “People need to support their local restaurants continuously. Restaurants can’t be reserved just for special occasions. They require everyday support in order to survive.”

But what if there are too many choices?

It is also likely that Obsessed Kitchen, the corner spot at Oak Park Avenue and Van Buren, is on the market. Reportedly there is another food concept ready to step into that location. But if true, it will be, by our count, the fourth bar/restaurant in that location.

Potentially more problematic is that growing the base of eateries was seen in recent years as the salvation to the continuing decline of retail stores in Oak Park, and in America.

If it is increasingly hard to attract retail, if restaurants are thinning, what are we left with to fill our sales tax-, property tax-generating commercial spaces? How many versions of personal fitness training do we need? Indoor soccer facilities for our kids?

We have long supported local zoning ordinances that require retail or restaurant use on commercial strips, particularly adjacent to mass transit. But in the new decade ahead is that a reasonable proposition? Already we see more alternative uses being allowed. Our preference would be a more direct discussion and focused planning on what our commercial spaces can be used for rather than a soft abandonment of existing requirements.

Meanwhile, we can all be conscious of spending our not unlimited discretionary income in locally owned stores and restaurants.

Kind of a sad time of year for retail, as well.

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Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...