Adaptive reuse is the ticket

Opinion: Columns

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By Stephen Kelley

One View

have followed the issue with the Hill Motor Building and the proposed Pete's Fresh Market with great interest. It seems that we are being given a choice: either save the Hill Motor Building as a priceless artifact of Oak Park history or wipe the site clean in the name of progress and development. 

This is a false choice, predicated on reactionary thinking that is firmly founded in the last century. Speaking as one who has evaluated hundreds of existing buildings worldwide during my career, it is my opinion that the Hill Motor Building is sound and viable and large portions could be adaptively reused for a new grocery store facility and address all space requirements — if developers are given the proper guidance. 

Such practices are not unprecedented, in fact quite common, and have been successfully implemented just two blocks to the west at the Walgreens store and several blocks to the northeast at Ridgeland Common. 

It is time for the Oak Park Board of Trustees to enter the 21st century and consider our environment as any progressive municipality must do. Sustainable development, ignored by our trustees, should become foremost in their deliberations. Sustainability is the ability to endure and maintain over time, increasing the efficiency of a resource, and create minimum impact on health and the environment. 

The Hill Motor Building, if adapted for reuse, can be a valuable and durable resource. "The greenest building is the one that already exists." We cannot build our way to sustainability. Demolition and reconstruction are easy but offer only short-term economy and solutions. Our culture is enamored with the new and this can cloud our judgment, causing us to profoundly undervalue existing resources. 

Will we continue to stand by as pollution-spouting equipment turns usable buildings to rubble and polluting equipment hauls away discarded building materials — concrete, brick, metal and glass — into a landfill to be abandoned? Will we mine, quarry and harvest more materials — metal ores, clay, gravel, lime, cement, trees, etc. — to be processed and manufactured in polluting factories to make new building materials? Or can we try a new way that is gentler on the environment? 

The east and south facades of the Hill Motor Building retain a significant amount of their historic features, including yellow, wire-cut brick; cream-colored terra cotta ornament; and a green, triple-spot glazed terra-cotta base that resembles granite. A terra-cotta cornice with various figures engaged in automobile-related activities extends along the facade. Above the large showroom windows, groups of diamond pane lead glass sash are set deep into terra-cotta surrounds. These materials are lovely, unique to their time period and durable if maintained. Some of them are neither easily recreated in today's market nor will they be in the future. 

There is a Native-American proverb: "The earth is not given to us by our parents; it is lent to us by our children." What will we leave our children other than a new grocery store? Let's do better. It is easier to just throw something away and start fresh than to reuse. If we always choose the easy path in our village, Oak Park would not be such a unique and wonderful place. Let's incorporate the Hill Motor Building into the proposed development; respect history, the environment, our children; and create a win-win for our community.

Stephen J. Kelley, FAIA, SE, is an Oak Park resident.

Reader Comments

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Brian Slowiak  

Posted: March 26th, 2019 10:12 AM

@ LG: I admit that I know very little if anything about why the auto dealerships fled Madison Street, however I am of the opinion that the smaller, in terms of actual square footage of the dealerships lots gave way to super dealerships with huge inventories like Al Piemonte at 25th and North. Real Estate Taxes are always an issue, however I don't think, and I may be incorrect, were an issue back then. Just me.

Les Golden  

Posted: March 26th, 2019 8:45 AM

TM: No one has anguished and taken political action against taxes more than me. But if I remember correctly, taxes did not destroy our previous #1 source of sales tax revenues, the car dealership row. Rather I think it was the action of the village to sell to apartment building developers. That reduced the available size of the lots and the dealerships couldn't survive. But my memory may be wrong. This space would be perfect for a theater company, since the rumor is that Village Players-Oak Park Civic Theatre-Madison Street Theatre may soon close due to taxes, lack of financial support from the village (theatres everywhere can only survive with govt grants), and lack of a theatre-going public among the residents. VP has been around for many decades, including major renovation in 1984 preceding my performance there in Ten Little Indians, but fine theatre and support for theatre is not mentioned by ANY of the eleven board candidates. NONE. Nobody. Zilch. Too busy falling over each other to produce equity-saturated campaign literature.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: March 25th, 2019 9:35 PM

Chris: In principle I agree with you. My angst is why now at this very juncture at the cusp of construction? In contrast, the Albion issue was raised early and loudly and forcefully. It was given a wide and high profile hearing - even though we (I) lost. Why wasn't the same done here? I just don't understand the "timeline" of concern here.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: March 25th, 2019 9:24 PM

You're correct. I was a little overboard. My point - which was poorly made - was where was Mr. Kelley years ago when deterioration, neglect and lack of village intervention first started? Where was he years ago when a "preserve the building" cause might have been funded in some reasonable doable way? Now finally after years of terrible neglect a credible developer comes forward and he now pops his head up and says: "wait, what about the preservation issues." My point is, it seems a little late for these tears now.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: March 25th, 2019 7:39 PM

What chased out the car dealers? Taxes. After that, a building made specifically to sell cars sat empty for 25% of the historical time it has existed. No line formed of people ready to adapt it into anything but an empty derelict building. Now something is finally set to happen and people have noticed the building for the first time in years. Take some photos, save some cool fragments and let's get on with life. We lose good stuff in this town because of taxes all the time and it is always tragic.

Deborah Risteen Mercer  

Posted: March 25th, 2019 6:13 PM

@Bruce and @Alice: Expecting Mr. Kelley to buy the Hill Building because he believes it should be preserved is like telling you to go buy a cow if you want some milk. I second Mr. Goode's comment; taxpayers already have skin in this game and deserve a development that takes into account both the historic nature of this building and the environmental impact of tearing it down.

Christopher Goode  

Posted: March 25th, 2019 4:41 PM

@Bruce. The developer got the property, five feet of Madison Street right-of way thrown in, and lots of our money to do this development. $3 million of village funds went to buy the car dealership from Mr. Foley and there is also money to remediate the site, and more money just to entice them to do it. It is not other people's money that they are doing this with. Much of it is our money. Shouldn't we expect them to do more with our than just build us a standard suburban grocery store on an urban lot? And a lot at such an important location within the village? The village planners should have made adaptive re-use of this building part of the deal from the beginning. They knew that the Historic Preservation Commission wanted it preserved. There was little discussion about what was included prior to the village trustee's vote in December. Had there been more discussion in advance it would already have been part of the project and we wouldn't be discussing it now.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: March 24th, 2019 9:52 PM

Yes Alice I agree with many of Mr. Kelley's points. But his points are easy to make with other people's money. Much harder when its your own money. Like Brian, I also care about old classic beautiful "impractical" things. Brian, classic cars. Me, my 125 year old Victorian. But both of us backed up our love of classic with our hard earned money. That indeed focuses your thoughts: do I really love this house? Do I really love this car? Is it worth it? We both put a lot of skin into the game so to speak. Other than hot air, what skin in the game are you contributing, Mr. Kelley?

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: March 24th, 2019 11:59 AM

Paragraph 5 is a hoot. "the Hill Motor Building, if adapted for reuse can be a valuable resource." Any discarded item adapted for reuse is a valuable asset. Some items cant be adapted. "The greenest building is the one that already exists" A quote, with no reference to the author. This would mean all those balloon frame dry rotted wood buildings in the Austin Area with their leaky windows, out dated furnace, are ahead of their times and newer solar paneled, high efficiency HVAC, and tight new windows aren't effective at all. "We cannot build our way to sustainability . Demolition and reconstruction are easy but offer only short term economy." Do not upgrade your home. expensive and outdated is the key. "Our culture is enamored with the new and this can cloud our judgment, causing us to profoundly undervalue existing resources." Some of our culture, not all. I own a 1967 Fastback Mustang GT 289 CID, 4 speed, disc brakes, factory air, Shelbyesque. I am presently restoring the interior, will touch up the body and install the factory correct Hurst, with help. Some want new, some want to buy the car sight unseen, The only value to the car is to me, and me only. If I sold for 20K, I would have money and nothing special. However the special aspect is to me and the limited few who see the value. I understand the value of unique, but not all unique can be saved. Some are just junk. I wouldn't spend 75K restoring a 1962 Ford 4 door Falcon. It was junk to start with and with a 75K infusion of cash and time, not worth the effort. Adios Hill Motor Building, you will live on in photos.

Christine Vernon  

Posted: March 20th, 2019 2:22 PM

Brilliant and on point, Steve Kelley. Especially this ~ "It is time for the Oak Park Board of Trustees to enter the 21st century and consider our environment as any progressive municipality must do. Sustainable development, ignored by our trustees, should become foremost in their deliberations." It is wonderful that a person with your credentials and expertise is weighing in on a development project being shoved at us by the Village Board, a project weighing heavily on the minds of so many Oak Parkers as a bad choice.

Alice Wellington  

Posted: March 20th, 2019 1:03 PM

Are you willing to buy this building and reuse it, or at least find an investor willing to do so? If so, why haven't you done it by now?

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