As resistance to the Albion project grows, now is a good time for Oak Park to shift focus from downtown to other areas, especially Madison Street. An even greater shift to its east side is overdue.
The merits of Harrison Street, Roosevelt Road, and other southern and eastern points are well known. The challenges of Madison Street require creativity and thoughtfulness, but solving this puzzle could be as meaningful for Oak Park as any downtown high-rise, with a striking boulevard that acts as a bridge between Austin and Oak Park being one outcome.
Ideas for unifying Madison Street across four lanes of traffic seems to lead to drastic, impractical, or far-fetched notions about what the street is (four busy lanes) and what it is not (two bucolic lanes). I propose that Oak Park conceptualize Madison Street as "two one-way streets" with a consistent boulevard between it that "frames" each side. Then each side can develop a unique identity.
This can be achieved with simple but consistent boulevard landscaping of canopy trees (which do exist on some blocks) to create cohesion for each side while breaking up the perception of a cars-only environment. Think of a wider, more inviting boulevard you may have encountered; each side may function this way. Rather than creating a feeling of separateness, I suggest this concept creates mutually beneficial environments. You will still have to cross four lanes, but defined boulevards create safe pedestrian waystations and more crossing points, helping keep traffic to the speed limit.
Key areas to begin this approach might be between Lombard Street and Austin Boulevard. Next, offer grants to small business owners to make improvements that enhance street-level and block-level coherence.
Expanding on this, create small business incubator zones (on Madison but also elsewhere) to capitalize on the creativity of residents both in Oak Park and Austin. Resist more fast-food and car-centric businesses, focusing on neighborhood conveniences where possible (as pitched with the seemingly stalled Madison Place development). Create accessible and appealing pathways to attract customers for local businesses.
Remember that eastern Madison is ideally situated between two el stops. Integrated anchor chains in 2017 are a part of the urban landscape, even helpful when done with respect to character and context — fewer long car trips out of Oak Park can be a good thing. Maybe Madison is appropriate for this concept. But this should not sacrifice a diverse business environment. If we are willing to give tax breaks to large corporations or developers, why aren't we willing to provide property tax breaks, grants, or incentives to small, local businesses?
These suggestions will not please everyone. Some will say they're too optimistic or unrealistic. But they could be the starting point for practical concepts to create pathways through and across Madison Street. Not re-imagining our concepts about what this street can be will simply let it ramble in limbo as an unsightly, daunting, impassable thruway. Make people want to walk from one side to the other and make it plausible to do so safely.
Eventually, this prominent boulevard could be a bridge between Austin and Oak Park, honoring the original intent of locating the village hall on the east side, a symbol of connection and cohesion between two storied communities.
Answer Book 2018
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