Moving ahead, honoring the past

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Every time I pass the Walgreens at Oak Park Avenue and Madison Street in Oak Park, I shake my head in disbelief. Awe is not a sensation one normally associates with Walgreens. Typically, I connect them with the mall-sprawl-ization of America, not to mention the epidemic of omitted apostrophes in commercial signs (though I admire the graceful penmanship of their script logo).

What I marvel at with this particular Walgreens is the façade. It's the same façade that has existed on the corner for decades. Previously I associated that façade with Sears, the little pharmacy that could, known best for their clever signage, which informs us that, at the very least, the pharmacists inside have a sense of humor. When Walgreens usurped that corner, Sears moved down the street to the southwest corner (almost) of Madison and Home.

But that's another story.

When Walgreens started building their new location at Oak Park and Madison, they did something pretty unusual. They tore down the tired, old, un-historically-significant building, but kept the façade. I've heard it referred to as a "façade-ectomy." 

Skeptic that I am, I have trouble believing that a large corporate pharmaceutical chain came up with this idea on their own, so, naturally, my suspicions fell on village government, which somehow convinced them to go to considerable extra lengths, not to mention expense, to save this relatively undistinguished façade and attach their new construction behind it, with the main entrance facing the parking lot on Grove Avenue. If you want to see what this Walgreens would look like fronting Oak Park Avenue and Madison Street without the old façade, take a look at the Grove Avenue side. Not a particularly pretty sight. 

So the old façade, as un-significant as it might be architecturally, represents a vast visual improvement over what we could be looking at every time we pass that intersection. Which is why I shake my head when I pass. 

Because it actually works. 

The whole process worked: village government negotiating with a large corporation to do something beyond business as usual, a large corporation being sensitive enough to community continuity to say OK, and the fact that the finished product is a vast improvement over what might have been. 

Sounds to me like a terrific development model — moving forward while honoring the past.

It worked again right across the street when the village OK'd redevelopment of the old Comcast building — not by some large profit-focused corporate entity, but an idealistic, affordable-housing nonprofit, which stripped off the ghastly Dryvit, a 1970s-era sprayed stucco finish, revealing an attractive older building underneath.

Development and preservation, not as antagonists, not as adversaries, but collaborative partners — looking back while moving ahead.

It should be our default setting, especially in a town like Oak Park with such historical and architectural heritage. Respecting continuity because, without continuity, we have no soul, no roots, and therefore no true flowering.

So why didn't it work — to date anyway — with the Hill Motor/Packard/Foley-Rice/E.E. Roberts building, the one with the cool grotesqueries or gargoyles adorning the corner of Madison Street and Wesley Avenue (north side, not to be confused, as it often is, with the Foley-Rice Cadillac showroom building on the south side of Madison)?

The Hill Motor building is (or was and probably could be again) not only attractive, but of historical significance (if you're not familiar with E.E. Roberts, Prairie-Style architect, you need to read up and catch up). It's sitting on part of the parcel where Pete's Fresh Market wants to build its second supermarket in Oak Park (talk about a vote of confidence!).

So why didn't the village, before signing the "preferred developer" agreement with Pete's, ask them to consider saving, if not the entire building, then at least the façade? A trifecta for the Oak Park-Madison area.

But they didn't. Reportedly they tried once before with Aldi's, which turned tail and ran in the opposite direction. Evidently, the village was afraid Pete's would do the same, so they didn't ask. Which triggers my main complaint about the village when it comes to development: We don't ask for enough (kudos to former River Forest Village President Frank Paris who was the first to lodge this complaint about Oak Park's too-timid approach to development). And maybe we don't ask in the right way either.

Fortunately, two genuine preservation advocates — architect Frank Heitzman and Historical Society Executive Director Frank Lipo, the two Franks — frankly raised the issue and, to their credit, the village board, albeit too briefly, considered the matter. Pete's officials also sound like they're willing to consider the project.

Unfortunately, too many knee-jerk, development-only proponents around town have rolled their eyes and dismissed this proposal out of hand, demonstrating how far we are from the ideal approach that balances development with preservation.

Oak Park's development era is now a quarter-century old, starting with the Seymour Taxman Harlem Avenue strip mall in the mid-1990s, which includes The Gap, Old Navy and Pier 1, etc. For a long time, opponents fought development efforts, in ways that earned preservationists the anti-development NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) label. Then the Great Recession hit in 2009 and all development efforts halted. When they resumed, Oak Parkers were much more in the mood to support economic development and elected Anan Abu-Taleb, who declared the village "open for business." A building boom resulted and any dissent was dismissed as "extremists who are afraid of our shadows." Now the shoe is on the other foot as development proponents seem intent on earning an anti-preservation, Anything in Our Backyard label. 

The issue has divided the village. Too few residents (and candidates) are willing to say they are proponents of both development and preservation.

The election on April 2 will tell us whether we are still either/or on development/preservation or whether we might yet develop a healthier both/and approach. 

We can't afford to be either economically underdeveloped or economically overdeveloped. We can't afford to either sell our soul to commerce or simply turn our town into a museum piece. We don't need elected officials who are committed to one side while merely paying lip service to the other.

We need people who can do development and preservation and do both of them well. 

The balance is crucial to healing our village rift.  


Reader Comments

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Edwin Haag  

Posted: March 22nd, 2019 12:35 AM

Walgreens did something similar at the corner of Milwaukee, North and Damen. They restored the historic Noel State Bank building. If you think it looks good from the outside, wait until you walk through the doors and see the grandiose ceiling. If well intentioned people put their minds together, solutions can be had to modernize the space while maintaining the historic integrity. I would support TIF dollars for preservation projects, before another high rise.

Martin A. Berg from Oak Park  

Posted: March 21st, 2019 5:11 PM

"We need people who can do development and preservation and do both of them well." Yup, that's how it's supposed to work. Thanks for putting all this down in one place so we can see the possibilities seized, as well as those not taken.

Heidi Ruehle-May from Oak Park   

Posted: March 20th, 2019 8:32 PM

Thank you Ken, very well said and reasonable!

Mary Kay O'Grady  

Posted: March 19th, 2019 6:01 PM


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