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Perhaps the biggest challenge to bringing new life to the old Borders space at Lake Street and Harlem is what to do with the store's lower level. Oak Park's Zoning Board of Appeals will hear a proposal next month from a medical clinic which wants to lease the basement but needs a variance to allow some portion of the main floor to be used as an entry to the clinic.
The retail-only zoning overlay in Downtown Oak Park would prohibit any medical use within 50-feet of any store frontage. Pat Zubak, executive director of the downtown business association, was reluctant to comment on the proposal Monday since she had not seen detailed floor plans. But she affirmed the association's support for the retail focus on ground floor spaces. "Downtown Oak Park has almost always taken a position to support retail uses on first floors in our district," she said.
At issue when the zoning board meets on May 2 may be the configuration of the proposed entry and the square footage being asked on the main level. Mike Bruce, the village's zoning officer, said a variance is need for the proposal since medical offices are among the listed uses not allowed on the ground floor unless the facility is more than 50-feet from the street line. He said the purpose of the hearing is to ask for a variance from that specific requirement.
Cara Pavlicek, Oak Park's interim village manager, said Tuesday that the variance request is for main floor access to the basement from the building's Harlem Avenue entrance and not off of Lake Street.
Attempts to reach officials at Water Tower Reality Management Group, which owns the building that housed Borders, for comment were unsuccessful. A legal notice in last week's Wednesday Journal did not identify the clinic's operator or what type of clinic would be housed in the building.
Zubak said she could not comment in detail on the proposal until she had more information about the layout of the proposed clinic. However, she said in speaking with the building's owners the clinic wants to use "the center part" of the first floor and the majority of the basement. She said she was uncertain if retail business would surround the clinic.
"I don't know where the access, egress [or] how you are going to enter into the space. I have not seen any of that. So I really can't comment," Zubak said.
Zubak said the focus on first floor retail "creates synergy with the other retail uses. It's hard to say, without seeing the plans, would this proposed use have a negative impact on the surrounding retail. We don't know until we see the plans," she said.
The Oak Park Borders was among nearly 400 stores to close nationwide when the Michigan-based book retailer filed for bankruptcy in 2011. The Oak Park store closed in September and the space has been vacant since then.
Borders set up shop at 1144 Lake in May 2000, according to village hall. The space was previously a discount shoe store, and before that, for many decades a Marshall Field's.