Oak Park shouldn't be stuck in the past

Opinion: Columns

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By Steve Bankes

One View

What makes Oak Park extraordinary? In my view, it's the contradictions: people of different colors, quiet leafy streets, a bustling downtown, getting around by walking, biking, driving, or public transportation. I saw a guy driving a motorized cupcake once. There is no single way to experience Oak Park. Twenty years ago, my wife and I, our beagle, and week-old baby found our home.

I've been listening to the conversations around the tall building proposed near Unity Temple and some of the language sounds familiar to me. 

"Oak Park's character is at risk" or "If a developer gains something here, we will lose something" or "I don't mind the density but not in that spot." 

It sounds vaguely like the national debate around immigration. Essentially, "We must preserve this place that we claimed for ourselves, and no one else can have it or change it. We like it just the way it is."

I know a nice couple a block over (I will call them Nick and Melissa because those are their names) who entered Oak Park through a high-rise development. And now they own a home and have a cute little kid and an even cuter dog. Their high-rise was a point of entry for a couple to kick the tires on Oak Park and realize it was the kind of place to raise a family. By the way, our point of entry was an extinct beast called an "affordable single-family home."

But what about the shade? That is a valid concern. I am a member and past-president of the congregation that has called Unity Temple home for over 100+ years and a past board member of the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation. I love that building like it was a member of my own family. In a perfect world, we would never have to make sacrifices even if that sacrifice is natural light for part of the day. 

What about traffic? Complaining about traffic is like snow complaining about the avalanche. If you are complaining about traffic, it is because you are the traffic. And you are probably heading to downtown Oak Park because there is a new store or restaurant you like that has you in its gravitational pull.

Unless you are looking at native prairie grass, you are looking at something a developer put there. I remember when they proposed opening Marion Street. I opposed that. Said it would ruin downtown Oak Park, destroy its character. And it didn't do either of those things. Different? Sure. Oak Park, like this country, is fed by new people and fresh ideas. We are historic but not stuck in the past.

The truth is, I want to keep the outsiders out. Oak Park is mine and I don't want to share it with anyone else. Shade sucks. Traffic is the worst. Chase out the developers who have the audacity to see what I see, lock the door, and pull the shades.

And yet the better angels of my nature compel me to leave the door open a crack, for urban immigrants like I once was. Those angels don't realize that Oak Park belongs only to those already here.

Steve Bankes is a 20-year resident of Oak Park.

Reader Comments

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Drew Rein  

Posted: December 8th, 2018 9:21 AM

There have been many new developments in DTOP the past few years. I would be interested in the occupancy rates of them. I know that the housing prices have tanked and am not convinced putting up yet another building is necessary or good for Oak Park. Also, as an individual who frequently travels on foot in DTOP the traffic is a disaster, but maybe I am part of the problem and should stay home in my house that is losing value by the month.

Neal Buer  

Posted: December 6th, 2018 7:54 PM

Steve, very nice thoughts until the village allows a 4 story building next to your home. Then you can write a different letter. Look at north Forest Park. When I was growing up, the developers bought the Forest Park government. They bought a bunch of single family homes, tore them down, and build a bunch of ugly 4 story condos. So, don't say it cannot happen here.

Christopher Goode  

Posted: December 6th, 2018 7:15 PM

Well said! When Unity Temple was built over a century ago it was a pretty shocking building. It is still unconventional by even current standards for church architecture. But the congregation and community were behind it before it was even finished with construction. The Oak Park community of 1905/09 was forward looking and had an expectation that their village would grow and change over time. They built some innovative buildings and a lot of good houses some large and some small, and not a few courtyard buildings and larger apartment structures over time. The village was built out from corner to corner, and several areas were rebuilt over the last century from what they looked like originally in the 1800's. It got more dense (Oak Park had 10000 more people living in it at one time than it does now) and accommodated more folks at different income levels and with different living conditions than it had earlier. We need to keep doing that now. We should be working to increase transit oriented development and both market rate and affordable housing, and this is one of the ways to do it. Is it too tall now? Yes! Should it shade Unity Temple or Scoville Park? Not very much - maybe not at all! Should we demand high quality design and materials? Yes! Should we be careful about how it fits into the scale of the adjacent buildings? Yes! But we also have to be realistic about what makes sense from a financial standpoint and realize that though a property might be zoned a certain way, that the Planned Development process was created for just this kind of project and that we have some properties that may qualify to be developed in ways other than what existing zoning allows. I am not afraid of the taller buildings that have been built along Lake Street and North and South Blvd. over the last few years. I would like to see some improvements in design and materials as we move forward. I would also like to see more affordable units and less Village funds used.

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