Go deep enough into the Capital Improvement Plan presented Monday evening to Oak Park’s village board and you come to provisions for continued repairs to the downtown area’s much over-improved Marion Street.
Back in 2007, perhaps a last moment of optimism before the real estate crash and all that has followed in a turbulent decade, Oak Park’s village government wisely decided to remove the last remnant of what had become a failed pedestrian mall in Downtown Oak Park.
Lake Street had previously been “restreeted.” But the block of Marion from Lake to North Boulevard had been left as a declining, if walkable, mall. The retail vacancy rate was high, the infrastructure was deteriorating and the village, led by President David Pope, had a vision of what it, and the block south of the Green Line, might become.
It involved brick streets, bluestone sidewalks, granite curbs, a “water feature,” fancy lights and, yes, even heated sidewalks.
There were objections at the time that it was all too much. Too expensive. Too fragile. And while there was a brief shining moment when the street was finally done and it looked like a photo from Fancy Street Journal, that was just a moment. Since then it has been repairs and replacement of the overreach.
Bluestone sidewalks and crosswalks don’t hold up particularly well under heavy use. Granite cracks. Heated sidewalks don’t work over time. And remember, the heated sidewalks were intended to protect the bluestone from snowblowers, shovels and plows. Oh well.
So the capital plan calls for more fixes, for essentially abandoning the heated sidewalks.
The decision to put the street back in was the right one. The choice to build it in a way that allowed it to be closed off for street fairs was certainly smart. And the combination has brought back the block as a retail destination, even in hard times for retail.
Wisely, subsequent village boards, with input from business leaders, have scaled back the streetscape excesses of Marion Street. The Lake Street rebuild of a year ago is handsome but significantly less over-the-top than Marion. And it appears to be built to last a lot longer.