The rebounding of Barrie Park

Five years after environmental catastrophe, residents say neighborhood is stronger than ever

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By Marty Stempniak

Staff Reporter

Nine years ago, Barrie Park was a giant hole in the ground, a veritable Grand Canyon in the middle of southeast Oak Park. Streets were shut down; residents were forced to vacate homes; and the park was unusable for almost six years as ComEd worked to remove coal-tarred soil beneath the surface.

It's been five years since the ditch was refilled and the park made whole again. Neighbors say their lives have returned to normal, and southeast Oak Park has grown stronger since the ordeal. An active community organization and a bustling festival have emerged from that painful disruption.

"There's a much stronger identity as a neighborhood than there was before," said Jim Kelly, one of the founders of the South East Oak Park Community Organization, which has put on Barrie Fest each year since the park reopened.

Kelly said SEOPCO, which has grown over the years and now has an e-mail list of more than 400 people, was spawned by the whole Barrie Park fiasco.

"It gave us a way to come together, to look at issues, to solve problems and to celebrate," he said.

Between 1893 and 1931, a manufactured gas plant operated on the site of Barrie Park, located on the 1000 block of South Lombard, leaving coal-tar contaminants in the soil. Remediation of the park started in August 2001 under the coordinated efforts of the park district, Village of Oak Park, ComEd and Nicor.

Closed to the public since January 1999, the park finally reopened in September 2005 with the first ever Barrie Fest — an annual neighborhood celebration at the park that features games, live entertainment and food.

During the long voyage to the unveiling, Oak Park instituted two programs in 2004 to help ease the worries of people living close to the park. The Barrie Park Reinvestment Program doled out up to $30,000 in loans and grants to people living around the park (half of the grants, or up to $7,500, was paid by ComEd). The loans were to help residents invest in their homes, improve the housing stock and return "vibrancy to the Barrie Park neighborhood," according to the program's guidelines.

Of 101 properties eligible for the loan program, 94 homeowners took advantage, according to the village. Residents only need to repay the loans if they sell their home, which has happened 15 times. Three of the participating homes have fallen into foreclosure.

Oak Park also instituted the Barrie Park Buyout Program, in which 30 properties near the park were eligible to be purchased by the village. Oak Park would then remediate the properties, fix them up and put them back on the open market.

Only six property owners took advantage of the program. Six years later, the village has resold all but one of them — the single-family home on the 1000 block of South Lombard that's currently occupied by Village Manager Tom Barwin.

Village officials believe those two programs went a long way toward helping to stabilize the neighborhood.

Trustee Ray Johnson, who is running for re-election in April, said instituting those programs was one of the most important decisions he has made on the village board. It was a contentious period, but he likes how things turned out. Other proposals had the village buying up every property in the direct vicinity of Barrie.

"There were a lot of strained relations, but at the end, I think everyone did ultimately come together to make some decisions that have created a very vibrant neighborhood and a really great park," Johnson said.

Village President David Pope said the fact that only six of 30 eligible owners elected to sell their homes to the village is a testament to the strength of southeast Oak Park. He said some members of the board knew at the time that they might take a hit when reselling the homes (which turned out to be the case, as three of the five were resold for a loss). But the buyout program showed residents the village had confidence that the neighborhood would return to normalcy, Pope said.

Manager Tom Barwin has lived across the street from Barrie Park since joining the village in 2006, after the remediation was complete. He said the average onlooker would have no idea Barrie was once a giant crater.

"You would never know it today," he said. "It may not be a fading memory yet, but you give it a few more years, and it will be a mere blip on the look-back radar screen."

Marion Biagi, 80, has lived across the street from the park on Lombard since 1963, and was previously called "the voice of the neighborhood" by the head of the park district. The big dig at Barrie was a nightmare for the retiree and her husband Bill, as they were forced to temporarily move into an apartment while the cleanup took place.

She took advantage of a $15,000 loan from the village, which the couple used for a roof, carpeting and air conditioning. The loan went a long way, Biagi said, toward easing their worries. Without it, they likely couldn't have afforded to refurbish their house, and might have relocated sooner.

"It would have been a lot more expensive for us to stay here, and we probably would have been thinking about getting out a lot faster," she said.

The empty-nesters have their home on the market now, hoping to downsize to a smaller home. But Biagi says it's been slow going since they started trying to sell it back in December. She blames the delay on the economy and not the area, and notes that the house still has appreciated admirably since they bought it — from about $17,000 in the 1960s to the current asking price of just under $400,000.

Molly Surowitz — a Realtor with Baird & Warner who specializes in southeast Oak Park — says the Barrie area has made a comeback since remediation. Average prices have trended downward over the past three years (more a factor of the economy), but she pointed to one home on Lyman that sold last year for $600,000 as a sign of the area's increasing vitality.

"It was difficult. I think there was definitely a stigma that is not there now," Surowitz said.

Haj Herbert, 38, moved to the 1100 block of South Harvey in 2001, and has since had two children. Her family received a $15,000 grant from the village, which they used to remodel their kitchen. And she has since opened a business on Harrison Street called Magical Minds Studio.

Herbert said they moved near Barrie after the remediation had already started, and they planned on staying there regardless of what programs the village offered.

"I think it's a great neighborhood," she said. "Everyone seems to know each other, we all look out for each other, and it's just an open-door policy with all the families in the neighborhood. My location couldn't be any better."

Reader Comments

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Laura Perna  

Posted: November 25th, 2010 8:03 AM

The Park District of Oak Park Board and Gary Balling Executive Director, never lost sight that first and foremost this neighborhood was home to our fellow residents, and nothing would suffice except a total long lasting insurable remediation, so families and park users could return to the Barrieneighborhood without health concerns and/or financial issues related to their homes.Kudos to all involved!

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