By Dan Haley
In a moment when the eyes of Oak Parkers are turned skyward to assess the latest tall building gracing or, depending on your adversity to change, defacing our views, my eyes recently rested on the inaugural skyscraper in our midst. That would be Mills Park Tower.
I stared at it until my eyes hurt, about 15 seconds, because this really is one ugly sucker. And yet I love this building, all that it represents about Oak Park's values, all the thousands of lives of our elders that it has steadied and blessed.
Mostly, though I know the story well, I still wonder at how it got built in the first place, that being in 1975 and right on the edge of the historic and pastoral Mills Park. It got built on the strong shoulders, the infinite charm, and the dogged persistence of Dominic Meo, one of the great Oak Parkers you've never heard of. There is an honorary street sign right near the tower declaring Pleasant Place, the street created to connect the tower to the street grid, as Dominic Meo Way.
Mills Park Tower is on my mind after a Journal story last week about a $250,000 federal grant provided to the Oak Park Housing Authority to support services for residents of the 198 one-bedroom apartment units at Mills Park Tower. All the apartments at Mills Park are reserved for seniors with limited incomes. They pay rent based on a sliding scale tied to their income. The added support services will help these independent folks contend with all the bureaucratic challenges of social security, health care, connections with services that can enrich their well-lived lives.
The fellow from HUD who came out recently with the giant check to present was identified in our story as Joseph Galvan. He offered up quotes that warm the heart but sound at odds with the material damage I'd expect the Trump/Carson combine might prefer in its doling out of tax dollars.
"There's only one human race," said Galvan. "We're all in this together, brothers and sisters. I know that with this grant, we'll do great work."
Whatever you do, don't rat this guy out. Trump apparently does not know that the super-sized spending bill he signed several weeks ago actually includes more money for federal housing programs than President Obama ever wrangled. Let's leave it that way.
As wonderful as this building is, as much as it has faded into our collective brains as "just there," when you stop and stare, it is hard to take. The website Curbed described its 19 stories as "brutalist." That's an actual style of architecture, I've read. In this case, though, I think the poured concrete panel construction had more to do with cheap and fast than making a "Brutalist" statement in the village of Wright. An academic paper titled, "New Suburbanism: Sustainable Tall Building Development," described it as "insensitive integration of a tall building in a predominantly low-rise community." That's academic speak for "Bloody hell, who set this thing in this lovely spot?"
Oddly, I don't recall any loud objections from the park district back in the 1970s over shadows on the park — more specifically, ugly shadows on the park. And I'm not sure if the park district deeded over a slice of its land to allow construction.
But I'm glad Mills Park Tower somehow got built. That the Housing Authority and Meo pushed it through in a moment before we all got over-sensitized to height and under-sensitized to hideous. This is a good building, an actual example of affordable housing in Oak Park that has brought grace to aging in our village.
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