It’s good news that Oak Park now has an activist organization focused on historic preservation. A community with a story as deep and game-changing as Oak Park’s in regard to its architecture and history needs a strong voice for its preservation and its celebration.

That Frank Heitzman, an architect focused on preservation; Frank Lipo, director of the Oak Park River Forest Museum; and Chris Payne, another architect, are the core of the new Preservation Oak Park is not surprising and only right.

Heitzman and Lipo have been strong voices for both architectural preservation and truth-telling about local history.

In Stacey Sheridan’s report today on the first meeting of the new group, she quotes Heitzman saying the effort will be to become more pro-active in speaking up for notable and endangered buildings before decay or development, or a combination of the two, makes them vulnerable.

The intersection of decay and development in Oak Park’s recent history was the old Studebaker auto dealership on Madison Street. A handsome building dating back a century, there was no question that this was a building worth preserving. It was also functionally obsolete, had sat vacant and neglected for over a decade and was smack dab in the middle of the most crucial development site in the village. 

After multiple local entities diligently studied reuse of the auto dealership and found it impossible, the venerable building went into limbo. At that point the best-case scenario was a sincere effort to save the façade and build a new Pete’s Fresh Market within its walls. 

But the will to do that did not exist. The culture of preservation was not strong enough within Oak Park Village Hall, its economic development team was not fully focused on how to find funding to save the façade, and the community, as this critical multi-block development deal came together, was not energized.

We support a progressive preservation culture that also celebrates change, accepts that adding density has value on several fronts, seeks creative compromises, and straight-out rejects the sort of NIMBYism that opposes, for instance, an affordable housing project at Oak Park Avenue and Van Buren, the site of a long-vacant gas station. 

This is the sort of activism Oak Park needs.

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