As Downtown Oak Park has blossomed and been remade over the past decade, there has been one stubborn and seemingly inexplicable vacancy.
While some may think of the structure on the northeast corner of Lake and Harlem as the grand old Marshall Field’s, others of more moderate age will recall it as Borders Bookstore. Younger and newer residents, though, likely think of it only as a glaring void at a key gateway to Oak Park — an 11-year void.
On Monday the Oak Park Village Board wisely approved a generous but necessary pact to split all local sales tax revenues for the next 20 years with an exciting, upscale and entrepreneurial Chicago business that seems ready to lease the entire 22,000-square-foot, two-level space.
It will become the third Chicago-area outpost of Dom’s Kitchen & Market. This is the latest invention of Bob Mariano who started at the old Dominick’s grocery chain, then launched the trendy Mariano’s grocery chain. When Mariano’s was sold to Kroger a few years back, Mariano began looking for his next venture.
This is it.
In its recommendation to the village board to sign off on the tax-share pact, the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation described the project as part grocery store, part restaurant and part food hall. This model works for the higher residential density Oak Park has intentionally built into its downtown over a decade and for the wider marketplace of Oak Park and River Forest.
The first Dom’s has reportedly done well in Lincoln Park. A second store is under construction in Old Town. Oak Park would be its first suburban location.
The argument for the sales tax sharing is clearcut. Oak Park needs to see this space leased. At 22,000 feet, split between ground level and a basement, this has been a tough sell as 11 years’ emptiness would attest. The buildout costs in an old and historic building are very high and for all the pluses of the location there is also no immediately adjacent parking. Finally, we’d argue that the building ownership — the Karris family and its Water Tower Realty — have been unmotivated and unimaginative, likely because offices on the upper floors have floated the building over this period.
A few years back when Oak Park was determined to bring a grocery store to Madison and Oak Park Avenue, there was clamoring to attract a Mariano’s. Almost happened until the sale to Kroger brought expansion to a halt. Now we have a second Pete’s Fresh Market coming to Madison and we’re getting the next best thing and filling a critical vacancy in downtown, too.
Detractors will worry that we are reaching food service saturation. Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, River Forest Jewel, the lesser Jewels, Carnival, Sugar Beet, two Pete’s, too much? And we say, let the market sort it out. Dom’s has certainly studied the opportunity and is ready to invest millions, to sign a 30-year lease.
There could hardly be a better outcome.