It was in July that the half-baked notion of demolishing Oak Park’s village hall came careening into public discourse and actually resulted in an immediate village board vote to actively pursue such a step.
How, in a village that consciously hobbles such dramatic development propositions in order to encourage discussion and community response, did this fantastical concept leap onto an agenda and a vote?
Well, the instant action resulted in an instant public response and it was not positive.
Sure, everyone who had paid attention knew there was talk of replacing Oak Park’s police station which, since village hall’s construction in the mid-1970s had been stuffed into the windowless cellar of village hall. A bad idea from the start, the subterranean police station had ripened into a miserable and obsolete space, fully at odds with any modern notion of community policing.
No one anticipated, though, that an architectural consultant hired by the village to propose an alternative concept for a new police station would recommend imploding the entire mid-century, Harry Weese-designed, and nationally recognized landmark building sitting atop the hovel of a police station.
And certainly, no one could ever have thought the village board would simply say, “Cool, let’s get to it.”
Village President Vicki Scaman quickly recognized her misstep and rightly slowed it all down. First, the village board approved hiring an additional architectural consultant, a firm with preservation credentials, to work with the initial firm to study and recommend how and at what cost the entirety of village hall could be modernized and its multiple structural challenges addressed.
And last week the village board approved formation of a citizens committee that will work with the consultants to review all options and come back to the board in the new year with its recommendations. A range of village commissions will be represented on the committee to gain input on the project. Among them the Disability Access Commission, as the current structure, built just before access became the law of the land, is actively unwelcoming to many. The Citizens Police Oversight Commission is represented, as whatever comes next for the police station needs to reflect Oak Park’s evolving belief in an open and transparent policing strategy — hard to pull off from the basement — and the Historic Preservation Commission will be represented, as the obvious answer here, and sorry for our prejudgment, is that village hall must be preserved. Everything about Oak Park’s value system says, “Fix this building for the next 50 years and celebrate it.”
Replace the HVAC systems. How about geothermal? Reimagine access as a fundamental right. But don’t apologize for a government building with few private offices, half walls and staff working in more visible areas, a council chambers where the elected officials sit below their constituents, a building set intentionally on the village’s east side as a message, which still resonates, that each neighborhood is critical and warrants investment.
And build a new police station that is visible, infused with light and shows respect to both our officers and our citizens.
And no more talk about demolition.