An unscientific survey of 170 Oak Park and River Forest High School students conducted by Wednesday Journal last February found kids unconcerned with the development on Lake Street and Westgate. Most (76 percent of those who responded) were unaware of any controversy about the Colt building.
But OPRF youths had clear-cut views about the best aspects of downtown Oak Park as it is-and on what retailers they would like to see in a changed downtown.
According to survey results, the typical respondent was a 15-year-old freshman who goes to downtown Oak Park once a week with her friends. She probably doesn't drive yet, since she gets to the stores on foot, and if you ask her a question about parking, she answers on her parents' behalf that parking in garages is fine. Her favorite activity in downtown Oak Park is hanging out (which includes watching movies) or dining at Puree's, Subway, Coldstone or Tasty Dog.
If the typical student does decide to shop, she is most likely to go to Borders, Old Navy, Gap or Pumpkin Moon, but when asked what store would induce her to shop in downtown Oak Park more often, her response is invariably about clothing.
The most common suggestion on this free-response question was the generic "clothing stores," followed by American Eagle and Urban Outfitters. Respondents were also enthusiastic about Jamba Juice, but some less common suggestions included an arcade, sports stores, thrift stores and "less expensive" shops.
Some students said that they would shop more in downtown Oak Park if it were more like a mall, which their rankings of shopping districts bear out: teens prefer Oak Brook or downtown Chicago shopping to shopping in Oak Park.
Most of the teenagers surveyed didn't know that there was any controversy about the future of a building in the heart of downtown, the Colt. But then again, neither did many older Oak Parkers: a survey conducted by public input firm McClure Communications last May found that 30 percent of adults did not recognize the Colt building by name, despite it being the subject of extensive debate by the village board last fall when board members argued about whether to raze the Colt or to restore it. (The Colt is the Art Deco building on Lake Street to the east of Pier 1 Imports that houses a GNC nutritional supplement store and a wig shop.)
The Colt building controversy is part of a larger discussion about development and parking in downtown Oak Park's "superblock." Board members last fall decided against knocking down the Colt to install a new road off of Lake Street, but in favor of opening the Marion Street pedestrian mall to traffic.
The board's decision to preserve the Colt seems to be in line with what Colt-conscious teenagers said they wanted. Of the 170 students surveyed, 17 knew about the Colt and of those, only four said they would prefer to see a new street built.
Students seemed to be conservative about how they wanted the traffic structure of downtown Oak Park to change: 81 percent were against the idea of opening Marion Street to traffic.
At the same time, teens weren't nearly as worried about business types or buildings changing in downtown Oak Park. Eighty-one percent preferred national stores to local ones or had no preference, and approximately 60 percent said they don't care about downtown's historical quality.
But others seem to pine for the good old days: when asked to suggest a store that should open here, one respondent said, "The downtown isn't interesting and has lost purpose ever since the useful places closed in the '80s and '90s."
And among the 10 percent of students surveyed who knew about the Colt building controversy, some found value in the idea of historic preservation.
"When it comes to Oak Park, I think what's old works," said incoming senior Joe Muriello. "I'm a fan of all the historical remnants of the past decades and I don't want those to change. I mean, I love new buildings and new architecture and refreshing change, but we have enough of that ... in downtown Oak Park, and I want to have something to compare it to."