Foley-Rice building to be saved?

Preservationists call for adaptive reuse of historic building by Pete's

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

The Oak Park Board of Trustees will soon decide the fate of a nearly 100-year-old building on Madison Street that was once among the biggest attractions on that commercial corridor.

The building at 644 Madison St., built in 1925 and modified a few years later, designed by E.E. and Elmer Roberts, was one of the crown jewels of "Motor Row" when that area of Oak Park was one of the top places in the Chicago area to buy a car.

The Hill Motor Sales Company building, which originally sold Packard brand vehicles, later became known as the Foley-Rice building and was still selling vehicles into the late 20th century.

For more than a decade, though, the building has sat vacant and fallen into disrepair.

It is slated for demolition at some future date to make way for a second Oak Park Pete's Fresh Market grocery store, under a deal brokered by the village of Oak Park. But that plan could be in jeopardy, following a recent recommendation by the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission, which voted unanimously to declare the building a historic landmark.

Oak Park Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb said in an email response to questions that the development, which includes a senior housing facility on the south side of Madison Street along with the Pete's, has the potential to transform the commercial corridor.

"Naturally, the historic preservation is presented with just one component of this development, but the village board is elected and tasked with the responsibility to consider all competing interests, evaluate its costs and benefits, and advance the interests of the village taken as a whole," he wrote.

That vote from the Historic Preservation Commission came at the request of local historian Frank Lipo, executive director of the Oak Park River Forest Museum, and Oak Park architect Frank Heitzman.

The commission noted that the Foley-Rice building would be the 70th building in Oak Park to be given the historic landmark designation. It also would be the first landmark designation declared against the wishes of the owner, it was noted at the meeting.

Steve Foley Jr. testified at the meeting that the building is "very expensive to maintain" and "almost impossible to heat."

Only a handful of groups have looked into purchasing the building over the last decade or so, including the grocery store chain Aldi. That company "got scared away because of potential historic preservation," Foley said.

"Yes, it's a cool-looking building, but being on the market for 13 years, I think the market speaks for itself," Foley said. "There's no demand, no interest, no want, no need for this building."

Lipo sees it differently, noting that the building is a good candidate for adaptive reuse, especially considering the village is using money from the Madison Street Tax Increment Finance (TIF) District to bring a second Pete's to Oak Park.

"We are pursuing this because for 10 years it's been identified as a very important building and meets multiple criteria to be an Oak Park landmark and that, we would hope, preservation would be part of the larger solution for the redevelopment of that site," Lipo told the commission.

The building has a number of issues and would require substantial renovation to remove a large concrete ramp inside the structure and repair terra cotta features on the structure's exterior.

The building is unique in its so-called "grotesques," a decorative feature on buildings — often mythical figures similar to gargoyles, but in this case whimsically depicting auto mechanics and men driving vehicles.

Heitzman said during a recent tour of the building's exterior that demolition of the structure is also an environmental issue. "The greenest building is the one that's already there," according to Lipo.

Getting the Oak Park Board of Trustees to agree might be a tough sell.

The board approved the redevelopment agreement with Pete's for the location at the end of 2018, just before the expiration of the Madison Street Tax Increment Finance (TIF) District.

It is uncertain whether that plan could be altered substantially if Pete's drops out of the deal since the TIF has expired.

Abu-Taleb noted that the building has been vacant for nearly two decades, and, "During this time, not a single person has come forward to purchase the building simply for the sake of preserving it or its characteristics, and no action has been taken to change its historical status."

He encouraged all interested parties to "come together to support these investors, welcome these new jobs, and unleash the Madison Street potential."

Reader Comments

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Christine Vernon  

Posted: February 28th, 2019 1:47 AM

Breaks my heart, Tom, when someone has a failed investment project like that and has to make the surrounding neighborhood suffer with them.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: February 27th, 2019 4:14 PM

@Christine - the owners of that building had a buyer for it ten years ago, who would have developed it way back then preventing any blight from occurring. Accusing those owners of letting it deteriorate is insult to injury. They had an offer in hand, so they were not being unrealistic about the sale price. They have had to eat a loss in the value of the property and have been forced to wait a decade to sell, taking a loss on what they otherwise would have had.

Christine Vernon  

Posted: February 27th, 2019 3:39 PM

The Foley Rice and Kleronomous building on Harrison Street, stood empty for years, deteriorating, giving the appearance of a blighted neighborhood and impacting the value of surrounding properties. The owners put their interests, making a windfall sale, ahead of the best interest of Oak Parkers. Those owners, grossly unrealistic about their sale prices, wanted more than the market would bear. Village officials allowed that to happen, enabled it. Now, the Board would seriously consider rewarding those owners with special privileges regarding zoning and other perks?! Owners that helped perpetuate the appearance of blight, hurting neighborhoods, hanging on to the property for years, then all of the sudden, they expect all kinds of permissions/ advantages to help with their non-conformity of existing zoning rules regarding height and density, often expecting financial subsidies like TIF funds (characterized as 'corporate welfare'), and or grants, and/or other variances given away by the Village Board for free - precious taxpayer resources?! Those self-serving owners held up progress in developing a vibrant business community & held neighbors property values hostage for YEARS! This is not responsible government. We need leaders who advocate for the best interest of residents first. Secondly, we need leaders that advocate with discernment and voters' consent for responsible development in attracting businesses and development opportunities. Height and density are legitimate issues. Since we can't expand our boundaries, we can go up. It doesn't seem to have solved Chicago's tax problems. As someone seemed to suggest on another thread, "Let's expand the routes of the CTA to other suburbs to help people get in other areas to access jobs an advantage OP has. Another commenter elsewhere said the Village should charge a land tax, preventing empty properties like Foley-Rice and Kleronomos freeloading in OP, while neighbors and the Village suffer loss of appearance and revenue.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: February 23rd, 2019 1:03 PM

Remove and save the grotesques. They are very cool. But the building needs to go. Lets get real about properties that no one can use, sit empty forever and block progress. I love history, but its just not that historical.

Chris Hanson  

Posted: February 20th, 2019 9:36 PM

Outside of driving up costs a bit, I don't see why this project could not perform a facadectomy of the Foley Rice building and use it in their plan, similar to what Walgreens did at the SW corner of OPA and Madison. Couldn't Pete's move into a new building using the S and E facades of the building? It's placed on the land to still enable maximum development options for all acreage. Couldn't you also ditch the plans for a surface parking lot to instead have an adjacent enclosed garage with the senior housing above it, with the garage providing parking for Pete's, the senior residents, and additional retail being added? Oak Park is giving so much to Jupiter, time to push this one ask on them, similar to what was asked of Walgreens when they converted that mixed use building into a retail store.

Lisa Gilmore  

Posted: February 20th, 2019 4:18 PM

Back when they built Center on Halsted in Lakeview, they removed the cool terra cotta facade, demolished the rest of the old building, and then put the facade back up as the facing of much of the new facility. I wonder if that's an option here in order to have a new, more efficient facility interior but also maintain the look from the street.

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