Heidi Ruehle, your Jan. 29 One View [Village and Pete’s can do better at Oak Park and Madison, Viewpoints] was an excellent, authoritative piece about Oak Park and its history of architectural richness and the importance of respecting and continuing this legacy.
There were, additionally, excellent comments by Oak Park residents, which demonstrate the “collective intelligence” many of us love about living in this community. Unfortunately, it is a gift ignored, more often than not, by our leaders, and, as a result, that rich heritage is slowly being eroded by allowing poor design by developers and poor planning and scrutiny by the present village board and the village’s planning department.
There’s no excuse for this. Elected officials, planners and developers seem to have that patronizing stumbling-block attitude: “We know what’s best for you.” Hard to figure that out. Ego?
We have the resources needed to continue protecting and expanding the valuable architectural history and its features of our village. We have wonderfully-informed architects, experts willing to advise and guide the decisions under consideration. Frank Heitzman, for example. Frank has spent countless hours helping all of us to be well-informed on the history and potential value of retaining historic structures like 644 Madison Street, the Foley Rice (or Hill Motor Co. or Packard) building.
But our local government continues to ignore these recommendations in planning a community. The wisdom comes from people experienced in historic preservation in other agencies — like yourself, Heidi — people knowledgeable with what an incredible resource Oak Park’s diversity of architecture is, the work of over 100 architects, a “living laboratory” of American architecture, and how this stands to benefit a community in every way. That doesn’t mean allowing mediocre or bad architectural projects. That means looking for excellence in design and construction. But, unfortunately, that hasn’t yet happened with boards in the recent past.
This past weekend, I drove from Devon (north), to Lake Street (south), I thought it was the perfect example of bad planning and sub-standard designs. That’s what happens when local governments muck up planning, including not cooperating with another adjacent town. You get an ugly mish-mash. We do not want that lack of aesthetic consideration on Madison Street or anywhere else in Oak Park.
There are examples in the city, like North Clark Street, that are examples of how preservation creates better shopping areas and places that have character and saves the existing buildings, which people actually want to visit. We want this standard of excellence for our diverse population — not to serving just one demographic as we sadly see the variance of standards and/or lack of them, based on wealth or poverty in various parts of the city and suburbs.
Heidi, you said, “The current plan is not only in direct violation of Oak Park’s zoning ordinance design standards; the lackluster design screams of indifference to Oak Park’s longstanding tradition of design excellence.” That’s the problem now, not in every project, but in the majority of the projects approved and built in Oak Park.
I believe the majority of Oak Parkers aspire to incorporate excellence in all planning, design and construction going on in Oak Park. Citizens know it is a reasonable, achievable and responsible goal, one of the important components we inherited from the generations before us that has made the village stand out, world renowned as a unique village. Oak Parkers traditionally worked to preserve the environment; to preserve the spirit of community while it grows and evolves; and to protect the quality of the architecture, which continues contributing to make the community a desirable place to live.
Let’s not quit now and become the generation that threw it all away.
Reading your comments, Heidi, I kept thinking of the motto at OPRF High School. “Those Things That Are Best.” It’s great to think that young people would take that to heart and keep that lifelong as they make choices and make their way in the world. Does Oak Park have a similar motto? I don’t think so. Oak Park has only the slogan, “Step Out of Line.” That’s a weird one, ambiguous and non-specific.
What if we ratchet up the high school motto to one suitable for the village, all of us, and adopt the motto “All that is excellent” (“Quod optimum est”) to help us remember collectively to continue striving for a standard of excellence in all endeavors?
Christine Vernon is a lifelong resident of Oak Park.