The expansive $15 million Lake Street reconstruction project could start as early as the end of February, weather permitting. Upon the expected November completion, a substantial section of Lake Street in Oak Park will have improved accessibility, a completely updated infrastructure and a more beautiful visage.

“It’s been something the village has been planning and designing for a little over a decade now, since about 2006, 2007,” said Oak Park Village Engineer Bill McKenna. 

The project—from Harlem to Austin — encompasses three major efforts that correspond with certain sections of Lake Street. The infrastructure portion, which tackles water and sewer main replacements, will be the first to begin construction in March, maybe end of February and finish in May. The infrastructure work will replace underground pipes that are a century old and start at Euclid Avenue, then move west to Grove Avenue. This project will cost roughly $2.1 million and be paid for with village funds.

Following the start of the sewer and water work, the streetscaping and resurfacing portion will begin April and is expected to last until Thanksgiving. From Harlem Avenue to Euclid Avenue, Lake Street will get resurfaced, sidewalks replaced from buildings on the north side to buildings on the south side of Lake, and new lighting and traffic signals implemented. This stretch of Lake Street will also get new trees, landscaping and furniture. This portion marks the project’s biggest expense, costing about $10.6 million. The village received $3 million in federal funding for streetscaping and village funds will cover the remaining $7.6 million.

While north-south streets in downtown will largely remain open to auto traffic throughout construction, much of Lake Street itself will be fully closed to cars during construction. There will always be sidewalk access to businesses and parking garages will remain accessible.

The resurfacing of Lake Street from Euclid Avenue to Austin Boulevard makes up the third leg of the project. The cost of resurfacing is around $2 million, which local funds will cover. Due to the proximity of many schools, this portion will begin in June and wrap up in September.  

“We also have a small contract where we’re purchasing traffic signals, equipment and stuff like that for about $300,000,” said McKenna. 

The village of Oak Park has hired Brian Racine of TranSystems, who will act as project manager. Racine will act as a point person for Lake Street businesses to contact.

The village government also hired the Prescott Group to develop the “Better Lake Street” campaign to support businesses within the three affected districts – Downtown Oak Park, the Pleasant District and the Hemingway District. The campaign includes business coordination and customer outreach. 

“We would meet monthly last year to kind of get everything started,” said Downtown Oak Park Executive Director Shanon Williams. “It’s nice that the village initiated all this because it is stuff that the three districts had gotten together to talk about. These are things we need.” 

The village has partnered with shops and restaurants in the three districts to create to create a generous shopper rewards program. 

“Kind of mimicking the one we do here during the holidays,” said Williams. 

The program is intended to encourage shoppers to brave road closures, noise and other construction obstacles.

May 1 through Oct. 15, by spending $20 or more at five participating businesses with a total of $200 or more, shoppers will receive $25 in gift certificates upon turning in their receipts. 

“For the rebate program, we were asking for $120,000 from the village,” said Williams.

She met with Village Manager Cara Pavlicek, Development Customer Services Director Tammie Grossman and Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb.

“The village was extremely supportive of this program and they figured a way to get it into their budget,” Williams said. 

While the rewards program will help, shops and restaurants in the three districts are still worried about the impact the Lake Street project will have on their ability to conduct business.

“Absolutely the businesses are nervous,” Williams said. “It’s scary. Even the merchants on Marion Street will be affected because of the dust, the dirt, the noise. But we have been preparing them for well over a year.” 

According to Anne Pezalla, co-owner of Lively boutique and president of the Hemingway District Business Association, the project will be “especially brutal” to businesses in the Hemingway District. 

“We’re going to have construction here twice,” she said. “It’s going to be really hard and we’re all very nervous about it.” Current plans are for major infrastructure work on Oak Park Avenue in 2022.

Pezalla and Williams hope that customer loyalty, combined with the shopper rewards program, will keep businesses from being hit too badly. 

10 added Lake Street surprises

The massive remaking of Lake Street from Harlem to Austin Boulevard could be underway before the close of February. It will wrap up before the end of 2020.

Here are some small surprises we heard Friday when we sat down with Bill McKenna, village engineer; Brian Racine, an on-site engineer for the project hired from Chicago's TranSystems; Jim Prescott, a communications specialist running the Better Lake Street Project and Eric Jacobsen of the village's communications staff.

All Pedestrian Phase, now there's a term, will be implemented on an experimental basis on Lake at Marion, Forest, and Oak Park Avenue once the project is complete and all new traffic signals are installed.

Here's how it works: In every cycle of traffic, lights will go red for cars in every direction so that pedestrians can cross through the intersection in any direction they choose. They can cross diagonally, though that is discouraged.

Studies elsewhere report a very slight slowing of auto traffic — one second — but improvements in flow of pedestrians.

If it doesn't work, McKenna said the lights can be readily reset.

No bike lanes on Lake Street but a lot of bike parking. McKenna said there is currently a bike lane on North Boulevard and that one will eventually be added on South Boulevard with the goal of getting bikes toward the downtown area but not on Lake itself.

No heated sidewalks under the bluestone sidewalks which will be installed in the downtown Oak Park and Hemingway District portion of the project. While the new Lake Street project is modeled on the remake of the 100 block of North Marion Street, the installation and operating costs of the heated sidewalks didn't make the cut in a tighter budget imposed by the village board.

Sidewalks adjacent to historic Unity Temple, though, will be get added attention owing to a bright idea from village engineers. The concrete poured there for sidewalks will be colored a bit darker and old-fashioned pea gravel will be mixed in to approximate the look of sidewalks from a century back.

With positive signs of commercial growth on Lake Street near Austin — One Lake Brewing specifically — modest additional streetscape elements are being added there.

A speed table — a raised platform designed to slow traffic and ease pedestrian crossing — will be added in front of the Lake Theatre.

Prescott said engineers expect to find remnants of track from the old Lake Street trolley system during construction. Conversations are underway with the Oak Park River Forest Museum on how to preserve sections of track for a future exhibit.

In an odd, maybe not completely off the cuff remark, McKenna said design elements will be scaled back a bit at the southeast corner of Lake and Harlem — that would be the Gap/Shops of Downtown Oak Park — because "it may change in the future." Think taller?

Finally, it is going to be a long year on Lake Street. But that doesn't keep aging infrastructure from aging even more. McKenna said village engineers are already working on the planning and design work for the 2021 repaving of Oak Park Avenue from North Avenue to Ontario and from Pleasant Street to Roosevelt Road.

That leaves Oak Park Avenue from Pleasant to Ontario scheduled for major water, sewer and streetscaping work in 2022.  

Dan Haley

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