VOP to pay $7.5M for DTOP buildings

Developer's sale of Shops of DTOP damaged trust in negotiations: trustee

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By DREW CARTER

The Village of Oak Park will pay developers $7.5 million for purchasing the Colt building and another building across the street to the south, 1145 Westgate--a move that will end a purchase agreement on the Colt stretching back to 2001.

In a joint statement today, Focus Development/Taxman Corp. asked the village to buy the properties by Feb. 28.

The companies stated that they were "disappointed" that the board rejected their proposal to be the exclusive developers for the downtown superblock after having invested time and effort in making development proposals that would "enhance the growth of existing businesses, stimulate new investment, expand the tax base for the benefit of local schools and taxing districts, and contribute to the quality of life.

"The Board of Trustees has instead decided to move the process in the other direction, one that will cost the Village of Oak Park millions of dollars to execute and result in millions more in lost tax revenue and economic activity," the statement continues.

"Over the past year, we took it on good faith that the Board of Trustees was genuine in its interest in the countless plans Taxman/Focus developed. Our responses to requests from the Board for our 'best thinking' were developed with the belief that the Board would thoroughly and carefully review our concepts, much as the Board led the community to believe that the consensus plan developed by the Downtown Oak Park Sub Area Steering Committee would be given serious consideration.

"We now realize our assumptions were misguided and flawed. We apologize to the community and especially downtown Oak Park merchants for not realizing sooner it was the Board's intention to reach this conclusion."

The steering committee, after a series of meetings and collecting input from Taxman, experts and the community, recommended a plan to the village board that involved tearing down the Colt building. Saving it would be too costly, the committee found. The superblock area is defined by Lake Street to the north, Forest Avenue to the east, North Boulevard to the south, and Harlem Avenue to the west.

Village President David Pope, Village Manager Carl Swenson, and spokesman David Powers could not be reached immediately Friday.

The put/call purchase agreement between the village and developers called for a roughly $5 million price for the Colt. The put/call allowed both sides the option to buy (in the village's case) or sell (in Focus/Taxman's case) the property for the pre-arranged price.

Trustee Greg Marsey said downtown planning was accelerated in January when newly elected NLC president Brian Farrar asked for a compromise among New Leadership Coalition trustees. Marsey, Farrar and Trustee Bob Milstein hammered out a compromise that was eventually approved by the remainder of the board, Marsey said.

That compromise included attempting to save the Colt building, which necessitated its purchase by the village.

At roughly the same time, Marsey said the village learned of Taxman Corp.'s intention to sell the Shops of Downtown Oak Park, which some trustees saw as a key negotiating piece. The sale would not only complicate negotiations, but some trustees lost faith in Taxman Corp. for informing the village of the sale--which Marsey said happened orally in December and in written form in early January--so near the intended closing date in late January.

Marsey said he and others thought that withholding that information led them to wonder what else Taxman wasn't telling them.

"If you're not getting the full story, it makes you wonder if the other side is equally willing to be a partner," Marsey said.

Marsey, Pope, and Trustee Ray Johnson were against purchasing the Colt. Pope and Johnson were elected as trustees on a VMA (Village Manager Association) slate, and Pope was later elected as president as an independent.

The 1145 Westgate building--located across Westgate from the Colt and across a parking lot to the west from Old Navy--will be included in a village-issued Request for Proposals to get a clear picture of the costs of a complete rehab of the two buildings, and will "factor heavily" into how the footprint of a proposed parking garage on North Boulevard might look, Marsey said.

Debate over the Colt's fate has pitted historic preservationists on one side against business and economic development proponents on other.

By midday Friday, proponents of the steering committee-recommended plan calling for a new street in place of the Colt had fired volleys. Jon Hale, of Forum Oak Park, called the decision to purchase the buildings "irresponsible," and wondered "why anyone else would bother to participate in another lengthy process" as outlined in the village's new participatory planning process after a major point of the steering committee's recommendation was set aside.

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