Oak Park on the Make

op mad bldg corner407s

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Oak Park recently elected a new Village Board that promises to get development moving again, and they have an early opportunity to allow the demolition of a very nice c.1920 commercial corner building for a parking lot with a Walgreen’s in the back. Will this demolition prove their development-friendly mettle?

One could argue that being on Madison Street, where almost every historic building is already demolished, there is no context. As Michael Moran of Preservation Chicago likes to note, this argument is like going to a dentist who says “several of your teeth are missing – why not get rid of the rest of them?”

The saddest part of this particular demolition/redevelopment is not the loss of a lovely building or a gloriously cantankerous and independent drug store, but what it says about Oak Park. In Lake Forest, Hinsdale and Brooklyn Heights, just to name a few places, Walgreen’s and CVS can be found in historic buildings – the one in Lake Forest is nearly identical to the one at Oak Park and Madison. Apparently, Oak Park is not as important as Lake Forest, or as sure of itself. Or did we even ask?

Economic development is a delicate dance, a mating ritual as it were. Some communities look for a lifelong mate and thus the ritual, the dance, is very elaborate, drawn out, to insure the best intentions of the suitor. Other communities are less choosy – a high schooler could easily fill in the nouns used to describe those that skip the ritual dance and get busy. These relationships don’t last and the suitors, realizing what an easy conquest the community is, come back again and again, dipping into the local TIF accounts and putting up businesses that don’t last a decade, while demolishing the stately qualities that would allow the community to be choosy. Instead of a marriage you get a series of one night stands. You get used, abused, discarded.

Walgreen’s is looking for the same thing as every other guy, but Lake Forest insisted he behave like a gentleman.

Walgreen’s wants this corner because it is half a mile from CVS at Madison and Ridgeland, which has torn down similar buildings in the Village (Oak Park and Roosevelt was a nice one). Walgreen’s has one of the nation’s LEAST SUSTAINABLE approaches to economic development – it will run its older store at Clinton and Madison while it builds the new one at Oak Park and Madison, and then leave a gaping hole at Clinton when the new one opens. This is how Walgreen’s has done it in Maywood and Westchester and Bensenville – the company gets to maximize the cash flow by making the town give them two development sites for the price of one. The town already has the store and the tax revenue – how much increment do you get out of the same store?

From the urbanity perspective, Oak Park loses one of the few remaining corners in what is turning into a mile-and-a-half long parking lot on Madison. Driving into Forest Park on Madison is like leaving the wilderness for civilization.

But this is what happens to towns with a “She’s Gotta Have It” approach to economic development. We all know that Walgreen’s is a cad and a masher. Soon enough, we will know what to call Oak Park.


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