Three-phase remaking of Austin Gardens wins enthused OK

? Harry Potter event also gets a permit to use Scoville Park this summer.

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The Oak Park park board voted 4-0 to approve the Austin Gardens Master Plan at last Thursday's final meeting of the current board. Two new members will take their seats in May. The master plan, developed by CYLA Design Associates, and summarized by the firm's principal, Carol Yetken, consists of three phases.

Austin Gardens is on Forest Avenue at Ontario.

Phase one is the "most doable," Yetken said, and the most financeable, using current budget resources. It involves beginning the process of removing shade trees and planting more ornamental trees and shrubs, especially around the perimeter of the park to provide a more uniform buffer; a moratorium on shade trees in the memorial tree program and including benches as part of that program; setting up a team to address "extraordinary" maintenance of the wildflower gardens; and recruiting volunteers who are committed to the overall horticultural goals of the park, which hopes to move toward a more native plant habitat. Phase one's timeline is one year.

Phase two includes replacing park furniture, including the aging benches, improving interpretive signage and distance markers for those who use the paved path for exercise, upgrading the irrigation and electrical infrastructure, and making the fencing uniform all the way around the park. The old garage would remain, but toilet facilities would be added. The timeline is 2-4 years and involves a greater budget commitment, Yetken said.

Phase three is potentially the most controversial because it involves tearing down the old garage on the south end of the park and replacing it with an all-new, multi-use pavilion with rest stations and capacity to serve as an interpretive center, and possibly even a "tea room," in addition to offering space for Festival Theatre's needs. There is also an option in the plan for building a gazebo in the park if community support exists for such an addition.

The new pavilion would also be dependent on public support, said Gary Balling, executive director of the park district. That's still a good 5-10 years down the line, he said.

Yetken characterized the plan overall as "a menu of options." Balling said it provided the district with a solid foundation so they can apply for an Open Space Land Acquisition and Development (OSLAD) grant to help pay for some of the work.

Commissioners praised the plan. "You've done us a real favor," said Commissioner Tom Philion.

"The plan puts us on solid ground," said Commissioner David Kindler. "It gives us a rationale. Now when people ask us, 'Why did you take out that Norway maple?' we can tell them."

Conservatory Director John Seaton said the trees that had already been taken out had made a big difference for the wildflowers. Other commissioners were happy to see that the plan actually called for adding 65 trees (mostly to the park's perimeter) and only taking out 15.

Potter gets a permit

The park district will issue a permit for the planned Harry Potter event at Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street July 15-16. Co-sponsors Magic Tree Bookstore and the Oak Park Area Convention and Visitors Bureau made the request in order to spread out the crowds which descended on Oak Park Avenue in 2003. The parks had been waiting for village hall to send a letter committing its support before the park district issued a permit. Gary Balling said there would be no food sales in Scoville during the event and stage entertainment would cease at 10 p.m. Because other events are being planned around the Chicago area, Balling said, Magic Tree doesn't expect the same crowds as last time. As proof of that, he said, the bookstore ordered 1,200 books in 2003, but only 1,000 are being ordered this time around.

Barrie Center opening set

Letters and invitations are being sent out this week to a Barrie Center ribbon-cutting "mini-grand opening," scheduled for May 21 at 10 a.m. Ballfields should be finished May 11, said Balling, and the Utilities say they're on track to wrap up final work at the park in time for the "Grand-grand opening," set for Sept. 10.

Newsletter debut

The first issue of the new park district newsletter, Park Connection, was issued March 31 and sent to 1,108 subscribers. Interested residents can sign up for the publication online. Park officials noted that the Web site address will soon be listed on the backs of all park maintenance vehicles and recreation vans to further improve communication with citizens.

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