Sunday, October 30, 2011

Here We Go Again?

For about a month, I’ve been meaning to address an issue that came up in the OP. Unfortunately plaster and wood and other things around the house have gotten in the way. Last month, the Village Board voted to purchase a building in downtown Oak Park. Much to my dismay and confusion, this is a common occurrence.

I wrote about one debacle involving the Village’s foray into development in 2008, when the Village became embroiled in a mess involving the demolition of the Colt Building. In that blog entry, I noted several structures adjacent to the Colt that would NOT be demolished. Well, fast forward three years and it looks like I may have to take back this assertion.

 View of Westgate towards Marion Street.  This small shopping area would be much better if it weren't for all of those small old buildings.

In an op ed piece in the local paper, about a month ago, Village Trustee, Ray Johnson, defended the board’s decision to purchase 1133 Westgate Street.  In his essay, he elaborated on how this was a necessary step on the part of the village to insure that they could control the type of development that would occur there.  The village wants to assemble a property that would entice developers and also have a hand in shaping what that development is. 
1133 Westgate.  Obviously, it has outlived its usefulness.

In acting this way, the OP is choosing to be part of a game where developers leverage communities to invest in, give tax breaks to, and assemble properties for development.  It is a smart business move on the part of developers and almost every municipality has gotten into the game.  Instead of spending their own money and valuable time assembling properties when market conditions aren't quite right, developers look to communities like the OP to do this work for them.  In the meantime, properties are taken off the tax rolls until the right time (or deal) comes along for a developer. 

It’s a messy business and unless they are looking for a job in this line of work after they retire from public office, I always find it odd that local officials want to play this game.  My only guess as to why this happens is that that they feel pressured to increase a comminty's tax base.  Perhaps they see this as a way that their overpriced “urban” communities with little excess land and dense infrastructure can compete with their land-wealthy suburban counterparts.  Land acquisition is the tip of the iceberg though.  Add to this the odd funding mechanisms and a typically covert local governance that are required to support such a system and it isn’t surprising that the Village Board would come under some well-warranted criticisms.
The south side of Westgate. 

Though I find all of the above very dismaying, my immediate concern is more concrete.  What bothers me most about the latest purchase is that they are taking what could be one of the most unique development opportunities that we have and very likely squandering it by taking this first step and labeling it as an integral part of a super-block development.   The OP is just not very good at this game.  Our track record with the Colt, at Lake & Forest, with Whiteco and the RSC Buildings shows that this first step usually results, at least in recent past, in sub-standard architecture and vacant lots.  I can’t help but be concerned with the result.  It seems that if you are going to compete with Oakbrook, Dundee and Schaumburg, it’s a good chance that your physical environment will soon begin looking as banal as those places as well.  One would think you could expect a little more, particularly from a place like Oak Park.
The structure just east of 1133 Westgate. What a waste of perfectly good real estate. 

The purchased structure is one half of Westgate, a small street that terminates at our “newly” developed Marion Street.  The Westgate structures are easily the most interesting commercial structures in the village.  A mix of English revival styles and arranged in a mews-like configuration, they create their own unique mixed-use development.  The first domino fell years ago when the Colt building came down.  I don’t believe that it is out of the realm of imagination that the next dominoes to fall are the rest of these Westgate structures.   The reason: the super block idea seems to be in direct conflict with the small scale infrastructure that exists on Westgate.  Labeling this area as a “super block” development seems misguided at best but worse, it seems to seal the fate of all of the buildings in the district. 
View at Westgate facing west.  1133 Westgate is the last building on the left. 
A Target would look great there, huh?

One of the arguments for doing what the Village did in purchasing the structure is that “we” asked for it during our “community participation” in the Greater Downtown Master Plan of Oak Park.  Maybe this is the wrong plan or maybe I must be reading it incorrectly but I don’t see a call for a super block anywhere in it's pages.  Then again, even after spending many years authoring such plans, I’ve never really understood them.
 The building that currently stands facing 1133 Westgate.  If there is an architecture that says "roadblock to development", this is it.

There doesn’t seem to be too much excitement about this subject at the moment.  Who knows, maybe I am off base and the Village Board is more nuanced and insightful when it comes to development than I give them credit for.  Perhaps they do see the potential for a unique pedestrian-oriented shopping area that links a new railroad station, Lake Street and Marion street with rehabilitated buildings along Westgate as a vital part of it.  Maybe it won’t suffer the same fate as the Colt.  The Colt was hardly an architectural masterpiece but I guess I am strange and find this small, run-down, stone-clad façade with the potential for redevelopment a better alternative to an open parking lot.  I am also wondering how many weeks will pass before the Village produces a report that 1133 Westgate is dilapidated beyond repair and must be demolished… 
The "Colt Parking Lot" with the Whiteco Building (far distance left) and majestic RSC Building.  I am so proud to live in a village with such "beautiful" architecture.


Fargo said...

When we leave Beverly to go the movies and visit nearby businesses, downtown Oak Park is one of our favorite destinations (along with downtown Evanston). The mix of beautiful architecture and good independent businesses is THE biggest reason why we come.

If we wanted to go to generic "anywhere" malls, we could go to Orland Park or any number of other hideously boring places where walking has no appeal.

I'm not wild about how generic much of downtown Evanston has become. I would HATE to see the same thing happen to Oak Park. The area you're describing is currently one of the most appealing commercial areas in Oak Park. I would hate to lose it. I could definitely live without more of what's in your last picture.

Jennifer said...

It's such a shame... So many in this country still don't value the history and beauty of many older structures. Even if there is no significance to the building's history, if it adds something to its surroundings, such as these do, why plow it down to put in yet another generic office building, parking lot, or box store? They have their place, but it isn't here.