Updates with a historic feel are planned for Forest and Ontario, adjacent to Austin Gardens. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

Oak Park’s Public Works Department scored positive initial feedback from the Historic Preservation Commission for its traffic calming and landscaping project at Forest Avenue and Ontario Street. Village Engineer Bill McKenna, along with Brenda Kiesgen of Site Design Group, presented two different design proposals during the commission’s Architectural Review Committee meeting Aug. 26, where Commissioner Lou Garapolo and Chair Noel Weidner were the only members commission present.

The intersection of Forest Avenue and Ontario Street sits in the Frank Lloyd Wright-Prairie School of Architecture Historic District and is adjacent to the Nineteenth Century Club, an Oak Park landmark. As such, the preservation commission was asked to provide early input on the historic aspects of the project prior to its full review by the commission on Sept. 9.

“When Lake Street was restreeted in 1988, there was a lot of work done on Forest and Ontario to deal with some of the traffic,” said McKenna referring to the decision to remove a failing pedestrian mall in downtown Oak Park and bring back auto traffic to Lake Street. “Like high-level streetlights were put in and it lost some of its residential character at that time.”

Map location of the proposed Forest Ave. and Ontario St. upgrades. (Provided)

Residents in the area have expressed a desire to see the area’s historic character restored in addition to the implementation of traffic calming and safety improvements, according to McKenna. Public works collaborated with the engineers to identify ways to reestablish a historic presence.

“Public works wants to restore low-level pedestrian lighting using a light fixture with a ‘King Arthur look and feel to it,” said the village engineer. The fixtures will also have a fake patina to match the old copper ones throughout the rest of the village. 

The project calls for the replacement of some sidewalks, primarily those corner sidewalk ramps to bring them into compliance with current Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines. The village plans to use natural cast-iron detectable warning tiles in those areas. 

“With the ADA improvements that are happening at the corners, we’ll be resetting the existing limestone wall,” said Kiesgen. “That’s happening on the northeast corner of Ontario [Street] and Forest [Avenue].”

Rendering of the proposed Forest Ave. and Ontario St. upgrades. (Provided)

To fund the project, the village of Oak Park is using $340,000 that was contributed by the developers of the Albion apartment complex near the intersection. The sum was paid to the village of Oak Park as a compensating benefit for allowing the construction of the high-rise.

“With the current cost estimates, it wouldn’t cover the costs completely,” McKenna said. “Then we’re also going to be resurfacing the road.”

Ontario Street, as McKenna told the commission, is in very poor condition and with certain areas in various stages of deterioration, necessitating resurfacing. The village of Oak Park will pay for the balance of project’s cost, an estimated $500,000. 

Another project component is the construction of a landscaped island out in front of the Nineteenth Century Club. The island will deter drivers from speeding. The landscaping on existing traffic islands nearby will also be restored.

 The project calls for the construction of new brick crosswalks that will fit in better with the neighborhood’s aesthetics, as well as the addition of limestone columns with mounted bronze plaques. The plaques are intended to serve as identifiers of the historic district. Public works was looking for the preservation commission’s input on those two project components in particular.

For the crosswalks, the plans call for doing away with the concrete pavers currently in use and replacing them with red-toned clay pavers to evoke the red brick of the Nineteenth Century Club. 

The columns will sit at Forest Avenue and Ontario Street, as well as Marion Street and Ontario Street and will have a limestone cap and base with veneer brick that mimics that which will be used in the crosswalk. The Public Works Department will have LED downlights put into the columns, as well as the bronze inlays.

 The stained-glass windows prevalent in Frank Lloyd Wright structures served as the inspiration of the plaques, for which Kiesgen shared two designs – the first modeled after the Darwin D. Martin House and the second after the Frederick C. Robie House. Neither are located in Oak Park.

“Generally, I think this is a great idea and good improvements,” said Weidner, before asking why the stained-glass at Unity Temple wasn’t considered as inspiration for the bronze identifiers. 

McKenna and Kiesgen agreed to look into modeling designs after Unity Temple prior to the commission’s review of the project in September.

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