As retail fades, zoning may loosen

Arts, fitness, financial services may be OK'd

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By Stacey Sheridan

Staff Reporter

Blame it on Amazon, GrubHub or COVID-19. But demand for bricks and mortar storefronts for retailers and restaurants has softened considerably in recent years and intensified in past months. The "For Rent" signs in windows in downtown Oak Park and other Oak Park commercial strips make the changes plain.

Oak Park, which in recent decades actively tightened zoning to prevent office uses, medical uses and other services in key business districts is now ready to look at loosening its restrictive zoning.

At the recommendation of the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation (OPEDC), Oak Park's village board has directed the Plan Commission to reconsider the restrictions on non-retail uses. 

"Downtown Oak Park has experienced a dramatic evolution over the past five-plus years. The addition of over 1,200 residential units has changed the greater downtown from a retail and service destination to an urban neighborhood," reads OPEDC's letter of recommendation.

 "While downtown's new residents are drawn to the walkable convenience of retail and dining options, a number of stakeholders have expressed concern to us about rising vacancies downtown."

The letter states that in Oak Park's greater downtown area there is approximately 650,000 square feet of ground-level space, 14 percent of which stands vacant. The greater downtown area is comprised of three districts: Downtown Oak Park (DT-1), the Hemingway District (DT- 2) and the Pleasant District (DT-3).

The zoning code as it currently stands, according to the OPEDC, does not reflect changes in the market for retail real estate, making it potentially difficult to maintain occupancy levels in commercial areas.

OPEDC's recommends amending the retail zoning code to include art and fitness studios, health clubs, recreation and indoor activity providers, as well as business service centers, such as FedEx and Kinkos. Indoor activities could include bowling alleys and axe throwing.

"These are categories that we historically have supported, and we've seen that support echoed by the zoning board and the village board," said OPEDC Executive Director John Lynch. "These are uses that in general have already been somewhat accepted in downtown."

In the Downtown Oak Park district and the Hemingway District, current zoning code requires buildings in the districts to maintain the front 50 feet of ground-level space for retail use. A requirement not easily met, as more and more consumers have turned to online shopping, especially since the onset of COVID-19.

David King, a commercial real estate broker and owner of David King & Associates, told Wednesday Journal that the use of ground floor commercial store fronts in Oak Park constantly evolves, but COVID-19 may prove a catalyst to quicken changes.

"The shift away from retail has been happening for some time. It is quite possible that we're going to now shift it even farther," said King.

The zoning should reflect shifts in market, said King.

"The reality is we need to take a look at our zoning and either modify it accordingly or you'll see more and more variance requests," said King.

The Downtown Oak Park (DTOP) board of directors is supportive of broadening the zoning; DTOP board of directors includes OPEDC executive director John Lynch.

"They're just trying to attract more business and make it a little bit easier for those businesses," said DTOP Executive Director Shanon Williams. "We are in support of the changes."

Oak Park zoning code currently does not prohibit non-retail businesses from using spaces zoned as retail, but it does require non-retail business to apply for zoning variances and hold public hearings with the Zoning Board of Appeals. The process can last months.

 "I think it does dissuade people and I think if we make it a little bit easier, we're going to be a little bit more appealing," said Williams. 

The recommendation, if implemented, would not require non-retail businesses to go before the zoning board, thereby streamlining the opening process considerably.

"Not every prospective business wants to go through the timeline and, quite candidly, the brain damage of getting a zoning variance," said King. "They'll just move on to another community where it's okay for them to open their business."

And that does happen.

"We do have conversations with prospects who, when they hear about the public process and having to make a formal application, the village and the time that's involved and the cost that's involved, decide to go elsewhere," said Viktor Schraeder, OPEDC's economic development director.

Comparable communities have less restrictive zoning codes than Oak Park, according to the OPEDC's letter, which states:

"Elmhurst and Forest Park are the most open to non-retail uses and allow office, medical, and business/financial services on the first floor. LaGrange, Naperville, and Evanston are slightly more restrictive than Elmhurst and Forest Park but allow for more flexibility than Oak Park does for some non-retail uses."

OPEDC did an internal review of each community's zoning codes to make these determinations.  

King is in favor of broadening the Oak Park zoning code, as it pertains to retail, as neighboring villages have. 

The OPEDC's recommendation in no way undermines or limits the authority of the Zoning Board, the village board and village government. 

"Nothing in this recommendation would sort of usurp the village's traditional role in permitting, plan review and business licensing," said Lynch. A Plan Commission hearing regarding the recommendation has not yet been scheduled.

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