Oak Park's Zoning Board of Appeals unanimously approved a proposal for a Bank of America branch in the historic Marshall Field's building at 1144 Lake St.
The vote is not binding but does send a recommendation to Oak Park's village board, which will make the final determination on whether to allow the bank to open on the high-traffic downtown commercial corridor where Borders Bookstore was formerly located.
Building owner Nicholas Karris – who said the lease for the bank would be as long as 25 years – was required to appear before the ZBA because Bank of America must get a special-use permit to operate in the so-called retail-oriented commercial strip.
The village zoning ordinance prevents businesses like banks and other non-retail operations from opening on commercial streets because they are believed to reduce shopping in such areas and contribute little or no sales tax revenue.
The Oak Park Economic Development Corporation, a quasi-governmental organization tasked with bringing business to the village, declined to give a recommendation on the proposal, according to OPEDC Executive Director John Lynch.
Lynch said at the ZBA meeting that half the organization's executive board opposed the bank proposal because they would rather see a retail store or restaurant.
"There were certainly folks that look at the [business district] and who feel very strongly that a retail use or a restaurant use or a café or a store, traditional retail, is a desirable use there," he said. "I think many of us would agree with that. In an ideal world, that would be the case."
He noted also that the OPEDC board acknowledges that the long-vacant storefront is likely to remain empty for the foreseeable future if the bank is not approved. "If you decide to vote against [the bank] we at the EDC don't think there's a viable tenant waiting in the wings," he said.
This is not the first time Karris, owner of Water Tower Realty, has tried to locate a non-conforming business in the commercial corridor. Earlier this year, he came to the zoning board with the same request to allow health insurance provider Harken Health to open in the north half of the former Borders space. That space is set back further from Lake Street.
Karris got approval from the board of trustees for the healthcare provider, but at the time he said allowing Harken to open in the building would enable him to attract retail-oriented businesses.
"Once this tenant is in place, a workable space plan will be determined for the entire floor, so we can restart talks with signature restaurant and retail users who have expressed interest in the remaining corner and Lake Street frontage space," Karris said in a letter to the Zoning Board of Appeals in March. "We are optimistic that we can reach a deal quickly once the rear portion of the first floor is occupied."
Zoning board members questioned the promise at last week's meeting.
"In that application, they said if we got the back one, then the front one wouldn't be a problem anymore; now they're back for the front and they want to put a bank in it," said ZBA member David Brumirski.
Karris told ZBA members that the building has been vacant since Borders closed in 2011, and he has been unable to find a tenant because of the size and orientation of the 13,000-square-foot space.
He said Bank of America plans to spend $2 million on the buildout of the branch and would employ 10 people.
Answer Book 2019
To view the full print edition of the Wednesday Journal 2019 Answer Book, please click here.
Sign-up to get the latest news updates for Oak Park and River Forest.
|Submit Letter To The Editor|
|Place a Classified Ad|