Two new rulings by the Oak Park Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) to allow for a non-retail use in space zoned specifically for retail provide a new layer to the discussion of whether Oak Park should relax downtown zoning due to the struggling retail industry.

The ZBA gave unanimous approval Sept. 17 for a request to convert the ground-floor space at 1120 Lake St. – formerly Bar Louie, Bruegger’s Bagels and Mattress Firm — into a co-working office space, as the property’s owners had failed to secure a retail tenant. A request to operate a driving school out of 103 N. Oak Park Ave. also received unanimous ZBA approval.

These are two highly topical decisions, considering the Oak Park Plan Commission, which hears zoning amendments, will soon discuss broadening the current zoning code to allow certain non-retail uses in the greater downtown area, as recently reported by Wednesday Journal. As the code currently stands, those buildings must maintain the front 50 feet of ground-level space for retail use.

“We’ve been having a hard time leasing the space,” said Antonio Vallado, who co-owns the property with his brother. “We’re in hardship right now with the bank.”

Following the closures of Bar Louie, Bruegger’s and the mattress store, the property’s entire first floor has been empty.

The Vallado brothers have failed to secure a retailer to fill the space, despite offering it in full or in parceled form, substantially decreasing the rent, switching brokers, aggressively marketing the property and presenting it at real estate conventions.

For this reason, the brothers decided to seek a zoning variance to lease the property to Venture X, a co-working office space company.

“This is one where the hardship seems pretty clear,” said ZBA member Steve Ruszczyk. “I’d be willing to support this one.”

Ruszczyk appreciated that the shared office space was of low impact to the neighborhood and called it an “interesting pivot from traditional retail.”

ZBA member Jim Lencioni agreed.

“This is a good alternative use and considering the recent article in the Journal,” said ZBA member Jim Lencioni, “this is one of the better solutions.”  

Venture X furnishes its co-working space with Herman Miller furniture, which the Vallados believe fits very well in the architecture and aesthetics of Oak Park. The property’s proximity to the CTA makes it ideal for a co-working office situation, according to the application.

The request to use the space as a co-working office had the support of the building’s condominium association. The association’s president and one of its board members sent letters to the ZBA, advocating for its approval.

The zoning board also heard multiple people speak favorably of the idea to allow a minority-owned driving school to rent the storefront at 103 N. Oak Park Ave. in the Hemingway District. The commercial district at Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street makes up part of greater downtown Oak Park and shares the same retail zoning rules as that of 1120 Lake St.

“We all know how much retail has changed, apart from in the pandemic,” said Nora Curtin, the property’s owner. “There’s no way to deny that.”

The owner of Excel Driving School, Rey Shallwani, plans to buy the property from Curtin.

“He’s looking to not just rent the space, but to purchase the space, so he’s looking to definitely have strong footing there” said Curtin.

Excel has a handful of locations in the western suburbs, all of which have been in operation for more than 10 years. Parents in the community, according to Curtin, have expressed a desire to have an Excel location in Oak Park.

The driving school Shallwani and Curtin both believe will increase traffic to the area, with a constant stream of new customers to share with the surrounding businesses.

“Parents will go to the retail shops and, if you know anything about teenagers, they like to eat,” said Shallwani. “The restaurants are usually pretty happy to have us around there.”

Excel also has no need for parking because the students will be learning to drive and therefore will not be parking for any length of time.

“We’re never really taking up much parking space,” said Shallwani.

The request to allow a driving school was not supported by Jim August, co-owner of the neighboring Irish Shop. August sent a letter to the ZBA imploring them to uphold the zoning as it stands so that another retailer could operate out of that space.

“I welcome Mr. August to purchase the property if he would like and he is welcome to put in a retail business,” said Lauren Vula, Curtin’s real estate agent. “But unfortunately, the property has been listed for a little while now.”

The ZBA believed the case for the driving school was very strong and gave it its full support in a unanimous vote.

In addition to co-working space and the driving school, the ZBA also gave its approval for a special use permit application submitted by Montessori Academy Spanish Immersion Inc. to operate a daycare at 308 Madison St.

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