A Deal Falls Through

Strange things always happen in the People’s Republic of Oak Park, a tenacious, opinionated and privileged suburb just west of Chicago – the only suburb with two CTA rapid transit lines.

The other shoe has finally fallen in the Downtown Oak Park development saga, some of which is visible at http://www.oakpark.us.

Oak Park was embarrassed last year when they adopted a whack plan by Portland firm Crandall-Arambula. I happened to be one of the random telephone interviews during the summer of 2004, so I know how bad their methodology was. The questioner kept asking me to choose between historic preservation and economic development. DUH! Historic preservation IS economic development I tried to say, but their script did not allow this. 250 grand wasted.

Despite saying “historic buildings” every other word, the plan wiped out 7 nice old Tudor buildings on Westgate Street to make the Tax Increment Financing District (TIF) more profitable. Again, a whack dichotomy – Chicago has used TIFs to save historic buildings right and left. So, LPCI put the Westgate district on its Most Endangered List (see Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois link at right). People were pissed, and the ruling party got dumped in the elections for the first time in 60 years.

But the plan was still there, along with a deal the Village made to buy one of the doomed buildings. The 1932 Colt building was designed as an open arcade from Lake Street through to Westgate. I don’t know how successful the building was, but the party was over by 1952 when the arcade was filled in. More recently one façade was covered with EIFS after its limestone spalled off – EIFS is the aesthetic equivalent of smearing lard on an oil painting.

Local papers and leaders saw the Colt as the opportunity to stop the demolition of downtown Oak Park. A Steering Committee was appointed to come up with a plan for the Colt, Westgate, and the surrounding “superblock.” Volunteers from local commissions spent three months of long Tuesday nights listening to four consultants, local merchants and every citizen who wanted to say something.

It was the most open and patient public planning process I have witnessed in 23 years.

They came up with a consensus plan that demolished the Colt Building for a new street to revitalize Westgate after 70 years of malingering.

It was a real process. A majority of the committee members went into the process wanting to save the Colt Building. The process happened, and a majority concluded it could not be saved. LPCI and I went along with the plan, since it promised to save 5 of the Westgate buildings forever, and these 5 buildings were better – a higher degree of craftsmanship and architectural detail.

Then, at a Village Board meeting, an odd thing happened. Trustees kept referring to Kathryn Jonas and Mike Iversen, two citizens lobbying to save the Colt Building. In most towns they would be ineffectual gadflies, but in Oak Park they have serious clout. Sure enough, the Village Board rejected the consensus plan. Even reformers want their committees to give them the “right” answers. It was amazing to see radical preservationism running the political table.

I had said that the Colt wouldn’t qualify for tax credits, but the last-minute gang proved me wrong with an eleventh-hour letter from the State Historic Preservation Office. The tax credits still left a multimillion dollar hole in the budget, but Mike Iversen – in contrast to all the consultants – said the numbers worked. And he had the only numbers that mattered: 4 out of 7 Village Trustees.

LPCI was accused of nefarious insiderism since the architect for the developer, Joe Antunovich was previously LPCI’s Chair. Great fodder for conspiracy, except LPCI’s statement called Antunovich’s plan “appalling”. I offered Kathryn Jonas a copy of the statement and she declined. Evidence can be so bad for a good conspiracy.

Then developer Sy Taxman – who owns the Colt Building – decided to keep negotiating with the Village when he should have walked. The political leader, Bob Milstein, wanted him to walk. I thought it was a classic case of developer crying wolf. They always say that they need this or they can’t do the deal, but then they hang around, hungry. Taxman extended the deadline almost five months.

Well, today Taxman finally walked. The Village now owns the Colt Building for $5 million. It will cost at least that much to rehab or restore it, although the result would never command $10 million in the market.

The Village says it will now get responsible bids– we should expect one from Iversen since he is the only one who has numbers that make the building work. I won’t miss Taxman, but I wouldn’t miss the Colt Building either. I won’t miss the next chapter in a political saga that rivals Chicago’s 1980s Council Wars, but I will certainly miss the next opportunity to spend three months of Tuesday nights on a fool’s errand.

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