We are what we do, not what we say we are. Oak Park has prided itself in preserving its architectural history. You could say historic preservation is one of the community’s core beliefs, a guiding ethic. The village has designated three historic districts and 70+ historic landmarks. It employs a Historic Preservation Urban Planner and all improvements to historic landmarks and to buildings within historic districts get reviewed by the village’s Historic Preservation Commission. People come from all over the world to visit its historic architecture.
Yet the Oak Park Village Board has decided in the course of one meeting to pay for schematic designs for a new village hall and police station, which will require completely demolishing the current building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, designed by famed architect Harry Weese in 1975. What property owner would spend thousands of dollars on designs to completely rebuild if they were seriously considering preserving the current building?
Every parent knows: we lead by example. You can’t say one thing and do another. Oak Park has an ethic of historic preservation, or it doesn’t. It follows this ethic in its decision making, even when it’s inconvenient, or it doesn’t. How can the village board tear down village hall, a landmark of architecture, then expect homeowners to meet stringent and costly historic preservation requirements? How can a village that tears down its own architecturally historic village hall tout itself as an architectural tourist destination?
Sometime soon this same village board will be called upon to approve an apartment megablock on the corner of Chicago and Ridgeland Avenues, inside the world renowned Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District. The Chicago developer started with a 5-story, 36-unit building. After vociferous community protest, the developer “scaled back” his proposal to a 4-story, 36-unit building, with elevator access to a fifth-story rooftop terrace.
No multi-story apartment building has been built in the FLW Historic District since it was founded in 1972. While a new apartment building in the historic district is neither prohibited nor undesirable, current zoning allows only an 11-unit building on this site. The developer knew that the site was in the historic district and knew that zoning limited construction to 11 units, but he bought the site anyway and is seeking a variance.
A local Oak Park community group, Oak Parkers for Wright-Sized Development, sprouted in protest. Drive down Ridgeland Avenue and you’ll see the street lined with their signs. Shop at Farmers Market and you’ll see their supporters wearing custom-printed orange shirts. For them, the developer’s proposal is way too high and too massive, has too little parking and too little green space, and fronts a contemporary architectural style unbefitting the FLW Historic District.
Historic preservation is an ethic. For many communities, it is not an important ethic. For a long time in Oak Park, it has been a major source of pride, even part of its core identity. Build a contemporary apartment megablock in its world famous FLW Historic District and tear down its village hall, an architectural landmark, and it’s hard to argue that historic preservation is an ethic that still matters much here.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Ethics should inform decisions, not be set aside when they’re inconvenient. The village should not approve a variance for a modern apartment megablock within its premier historic district, and it should seek options that preserve the village hall building while modernizing it and building a new police station.
Let’s preserve Oak Park’s great history of historic preservation. It’s an ethic that still matters, one that speaks greatly of who we are.