Why Can't Oak Park Be More Like Galena?

Strict zoning helps shopping areas retain personality

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By David Hammond

There are some clear similiarites between Oak Park and Galena, a small town in northwest Illinois that we visited last weekend.

Like Oak Park, Galena has a lot of personality. Eighty-five percent of Galena’s downtown buildings are on the National Historic Register. In the nineteenth century, city fathers made what seems the short-sighted decision not to allow the railroad to build a terminus in their city. As a result, other metro areas grew while Galena remained locked in the past, reliant upon a declining steamboat industry. Years later, it was discovered that tourism might be the way to keep the town alive, and so it was decided that the downtown area would be zoned to minimize modification of the old brick facades that give the town its character. 

Currently, there’s not a single franchise restaurant to be seen on Galena’s Main St.

I like that.

Although I’ve bemoaned the encroaching enfranchisement of Lake Street in Oak Park, few would want to see more laws put in place to discourage business of any sort from setting up on our village’s main drag. It’s inevitable that we will see more generic food outlets like Potbelly, which moved in late last year, and Johnny Rockets, which will soon be right across the street.

I’m not saying I won’t patronize any of these franchise restaurants, but my strong preference is to spend my dining dollar at small local one-off places like Luo’s and Jerusalem Café, Marion Street Cheese Market and Mickey’s. I would rather Oak Park not come to look like every other Western Suburban city. Because it’s boring.

 But what, realistically, can Oak Park do to avoid that?

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jstjen71 from Oak Park  

Posted: February 23rd, 2011 3:46 PM

I agree that this article is comparing apples to oranges. I have grown up in Oak Park and have also lived in Galena for a time recently. It is totally different. I agree the amount of "chain" stores can be a concern in Oak Park, but there is also a need for them. I really need to correct you on your statement that there is not a chain store on Main Street. Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory is a chain, and on Main Street. There used to be a Subway too. I think you need to check facts better.


Posted: February 21st, 2011 11:46 AM

""But what, realistically, can Oak Park do to avoid that?"" We could dig a canal to the Des Plaines and float gondolas (like Venice!) up and down Madison Street. ;)

JohnHubbuch from Oak Park Il  

Posted: February 20th, 2011 12:51 PM

I too wish we had fewer chains. If we had a place that served sushi and fried chicken and had big screen TV's that showed English Premier League Soccer I would definitely go. I don't know if the property owner would give the restraunteur a $100,000 build out allowance, but he should.

David Hammond from OakPark.com/Blogs/Dining  

Posted: February 20th, 2011 11:16 AM

The apples to oranges cliche doesn't make sense to me. Never has. They're both fruit. I prefer oranges. OP, are you suggesting one can compare only those cities with the same numbers of plows, schools and residents? Seems very arbitrary. OPer, I must say, I've always felt there was a lot of similarity between OP, Evanston and Hyde Park. No idea how they compare in terms of public services, public schools or population.


Posted: February 20th, 2011 2:54 AM

How many plows does Galena have? How many schools does Galena have? How many residents? Why are we comparing apples to oranges?????


Posted: February 19th, 2011 10:44 PM

Unfortunately, the VMA controlled VOP Board seems intent on making OP look like Evanston instead.

Resident Taxpayer from Oak Park  

Posted: February 18th, 2011 7:21 PM

Tourism is Oak Park's best chance. Why isn't more planned with this in mind? When one travels elsewhere, one wants to experience local culture. Sure, there's something to be said for the familiar franchise, but not much. Visitors/vacationers want local novelty. We should serve up more hospitality.

Jason Malley  

Posted: February 18th, 2011 3:48 PM

Hey David, we actually did not eat at Eagle Ridge, we went into Galena both Saturday and Sunday. It was at least 15 years ago, so maybe I should give Galena another shot. But if i do, and i don't like it i will be sure to let you know. Best, Jason

David Hammond from OakPark.com/Dining/Blogs  

Posted: February 18th, 2011 3:30 PM

Jason, hope you tried the smoked prime rib at Eagle Ridge -- fantastic -- as was the corn chowder. The Eagle Ridge property, far outside the town of Galena, is indeed bleak. I would be hesitant, however, to judge the town based on the fact that the thermostat in the dairy section of some local grocery store is set incorrectly.

Jason Malley from Oak Park  

Posted: February 18th, 2011 2:25 PM

If i could only learn to type! The selection in the grocery store was minimal...nothing there, lots of white bread and the yogurt was frozen... and i don't mean it was a frozen yogurt treat... it was frozen solid, and very much not a treat.

Jason Malley from Oak Park  

Posted: February 18th, 2011 2:23 PM

I have only been to Galena once. It was a bleak place to be on a weekend away. We had a friends house at Eagle Ridge for the weekend, and went to the Galena grocery store and the selection was not minimal. The restaurants were mediocre at best. I disliked it so much that I have never returned. I sure don't want Oak Park to be anything like Galena.

Gary Schwab from Oak Park  

Posted: February 18th, 2011 2:05 PM

Our Village Board keeps talking about development requiring much higher density of well-off consumers: big box stores, entertainment venues, a new hospital, a new college. They use TIF money to promote schemes that don't make sense for any private developer with any plausible subsidy. We then get our unique signature vacant commercial lots. The Village has emphatically rejected the National Trust's Mainstreet program which helps places like Galena (and Forest Park).

Gary Schwab from Oak Park  

Posted: February 18th, 2011 1:59 PM

Galena knows its economic future is based on its unique historic character. Spaces in old buildibngs don't meet the needs of national chains; demolition isn't allowed. Some of us have been fighting to keep Oak Park's historic commercial character for years. The people in power see dollar signs in the notion of 10,000 new young, mostly single, rich residents in high-rises and townhomes. Whenever old retail spaces are replaced by new or gut-rehabbed ones, rents get too high for ma & pa stores.

Patricia O'Shea  

Posted: February 18th, 2011 9:24 AM

Part of why Galena is successful is it's a destination...a weekend getaway. To become a destination in metro-Chicago you have to significantly differentiate yourself from the communities around you. Although it's totally cookie cutter and manufactured, one place that comes to mind is Glenview..the children's museum, the parks..the restaurants and shopping...when my young family goes there we make a day of it.

David Hammond from OakPark.com/Dining/Blogs  

Posted: February 17th, 2011 5:04 PM

I, like you, believe in the "invisible hand" of the free market, but there must be ways to make our village more inviting to small business owners (from my perspective, especially restaurants). It's sad if, as Shaker claims, only a big franchise like Johnny Rockets can make money at Lake & Marion.

C Chase  

Posted: February 17th, 2011 4:06 PM

You're right David; and sorry for verbosely highjacking this area to complain, no offense. I hate to do this tired comparison but look at Madison Street in Forest Park. A lot of great old buildings with unique shops, very few national chains. This was accomplished in part by free market, get out of the way planning and lower operating costs.

David Hammond from Oakpark.com/Dining/Blogs  

Posted: February 17th, 2011 2:01 PM

C Chase, we're clearly in agreement that "few would want to see more laws put in place to discourage business of any sort from setting up on our village's main drag." My question is, What can be done to help Oak Park retain its unique character while still encouraging business?

David Hammond from David@OakPark.com/Dining/Blogs  

Posted: February 17th, 2011 1:57 PM

McDonald's manages every aspect of the store, space for food storage/prep, layout of customer area, etc. Scott, given constraints, I doubt McDonald's could move into any of these spaces without major adjustments to the buildings, including fa?es. If they could, they probably would. You do see McDonald's in some existing buildings (like in Chicago's Loop), but they're a rarity because building restrictions limit the ability of Golden Arch engineers to maximize efficiencies.

judith from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: February 17th, 2011 1:22 PM

Oak Park can't be like Galena because it isn't Galena. Apples vs Oranges. Try comparing Oak Park to Hinsdale or Elmhurst and you'd have more credibility.

C Chase  

Posted: February 17th, 2011 12:44 PM

Is this a real article or a farce? REALLY, a bucolic small tourist town comparison? Oak Park would be a better place with less regulation not more. "Planning" was left us with several empty lots and incomplete projects. Not to mention misdirected TIF funds that should not have been extended that are now putting pressure on D97. Oak Park gets a "D" in economic development. At least we'll have nice brick streets, I guess that's better than the nationwide Lane Bryant embarrassment.


Posted: February 17th, 2011 11:56 AM

I don't follow your point about Galena. What does the facade zoning have to do with the absence of franchise restaurants? Why can't McDonalds move into a 19th century building on Galena's main street?

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