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Will Oak Park destroy its mall in order to save it?



No one is certain exactly whose idea it was, but it seemed an unassailably good one. Retail sales were slumping at the Oak Park Mall. By the end of last year its rising retail vacancy rate topped 20 percent, as almost all of its major anchors--Lytton's, Wieboldt's, and Marshall Field's--had closed shop by then. Isn't it time you got hip with the newest theories in the retail world, more than one consultant argued, and reopened Lake Street to traffic?

In the 60s and 70s, planners created pedestrian malls downtown to compete with thriving malls built on the outskirts of towns. But now the theory is that what people want is convenient parking, and that downtowns should be reopened to car traffic. Lake Street is one of Oak Park's busiest east-west thoroughfares. Open Lake at the mall to cars, consultants promised, and major retailers, fancy eateries, and upscale merchants will flock there, transforming Lake's venerable but sleepy shopping district into the second coming of Halsted Street glitz.

More than 60 percent of the mall's property owners approved the change, and the village board of trustees moved fast, in January 1988, to approve a plan that would uproot the trees, shrubs, and flowers now planted in the middle of Lake Street. "As one trustee joked, this is a shopping district, not a park," says Lois Hall, a village trustee. "We expected some questions but not a whole lot of opposition."

What they got was that west suburb's version of revolution.

"I'm telling you, if they go through with this restreeting, residents will be angry," says Robert Bell, a longtime resident himself, head of an architectural firm housed in the mall, and leader of an ad hoc group called the Committee to Save the Oak Park Mall. "I'll bet you 90 percent of the residents are against restreeting. We have a beautiful mall, a lovely mall. It's unique; it's working. So why change it? What's their proof that more businesses will come here if they reopen Lake? I'm not convinced by their studies. In my opinion, most consultants say what you pay to hear."

Bell and his allies have gathered thousands of signatures on petitions, sponsored candlelight vigils, and threatened to boycott mall stores that support the change. At the very least, they demand that construction (which could begin within a month) be delayed until at least November, when voters can take a stand on the issue in a nonbinding referendum.

What we have here is a stately old suburb wrestling with rising city expenses and dwindling revenues--a situation akin to Evanston's a few years back when officials finally decided to allow a McDonald's downtown.

"Opening Lake Street was a very hard decision for me to come to because I love the mall, and my job has been to keep it beautiful," says Gloria Morrissy, manager of the Oak Park Mall Commission, a group of merchants, property owners, and one village official that oversees the mall. "But there are major pieces of property here that we just cannot rent. We have tried; I can't tell you how many times we tried. And it all comes down to this: if we want more stores here, and if we want to generate more tax revenues, we have to make some changes."

In all fairness to the adherents of change, downtown Oak Park wasn't always a mall--Lake Street was once an open thoroughfare. It was closed a relatively short time ago, in the early 70s, because the downtown was threatened by the Old Orchards, Woodfields, and other sprawling, regional malls--which, though ugly, charmless, and grossly impersonal, were stealing business from downtowns everywhere.

"Downtown Oak Park has flourished since the 1920s," Bell says, "when its commercial leaders attracted stores from Chicago, like Field's and Wieboldt's and the Fair Store, to open branches here. It made sense for the big stores to come here, we're a stable community, we have money to spend. There's a lot of charge cards in Oak Park. Then the regional malls were created. And our retailers realized they had to do something."

The idea for a downtown mall seemed unbeatable. They would close off traffic at Lake and Marion streets, build some parking garages on the outskirts of the area, and tear up the concrete-paved boulevards and landscape the space with trees, shrubs, and flowers.

"It's an unusual design for a landscaped mall," says Bell. "It has a commitment to trees. We just don't have little pots with flowers, this is like a forest. You can go to a zillion other malls, and you'll only find a few token plants. But we have pin oaks in here--big beautiful trees. It gives us a small-town, distinctive appearance. The idea was to create a handsome setting for stores, and it has worked."

And then in the early 1980s came the crunch, as one after another all three of the major anchors closed. "A number of the major department stores who didn't manage themselves well found themselves in financial troubles," says Morrissy. "Marshall Field's closed for reasons of its own. That meant our vacancy rate was close to 20 percent. Most malls consider themselves successful if their vacancy is around 5 percent, and that's where we were until the big closings."

Now the mall managers wrestled with the paradox that small businesses were thriving in close proximity to the large, empty buildings. Although the big stores' departure reduced sales overall, there are 120 businesses in the mall, and by and large, rents there are rising, as the small storefronts become homes to a plethora of locally operated specialty shops. But the managers still fear that the big vacancies (mostly concentrated on the mall's west side) will drive customers away.

"When it was announced that Field's was leaving, we began looking for ways to do public relations for the mall," says Stephen Herseth, chairman of the mall commission and an officer in the Grais Company, which owns several pieces of property on the mall. "Every public relations firm told us we had to address the issue of the vacancies. So we hired consultants, and they all agreed: the only effective way to deal with vacancies was to put the street back in."

"We know we're sitting on a valuable location," says Morrissy. "This is a strong demographic area; we should have more upper-end stores. We could very easily support a Crate & Barrel, we could support a Limited, we could support upscale women's accessories stores. But these people won't move here unless they have street action. The retailers feel they need customers driving through the business district so customers can see what the mall offers.

"Besides, we will never get a major restaurant to move here unless we open Lake Street. We have 11 restaurants here. And they're run by nice, hardworking people. But there is no place to take a business associate to lunch; there's no place to have a wonderful dinner. We need a restaurant that will draw people here after hours. But you don't see restaurants in the center of a mall. People have to be able to drive right up to a restaurant so they can drop people off--and then park."

The commission's recommendations won an endorsement from the village's board of trustees, which voted to draft plans for reopening Lake Street. It was then that the Committee to Save the Oak Park Mall was formed.

"I admit that I have a personal attachment to the mall," says Bell. "My former partner, Tom Sturr, was a village trustee at the time it was built. We were selected by the village to oversee construction. It's like your baby. I can't understand why they would tear it up without a solid reason." Indeed, neither the commission nor the board of trustees has any commitment from a major retailer or restaurant to move to Oak Park once Lake Street is opened. Many observers note that most of the mall flourishes anyway.

"We have excellent pedestrian traffic here," says Martha Lussenhop, part owner of the Fantasy Factory, a local outfit selling infants' clothing whose only store is in the mall. "I think they ought to take advantage of the bodies that are here. The Lake [movie theater] is here; it does a great business. They sell out on weekends. When you go to the theater you eat at the restaurants or yogurt shops. They should build around what they have--small shops that keep the old-fashioned atmosphere of Oak Park. I would like better management, yes, but I think a lot of these vacancies will fill up as retailers realize how strong this market is."

On top of the other questions is the matter of how restreeting will be paid for. Opening Lake Street would be a $4 million project, to be paid for with money generated through Tax Incremental Financing (TIF). In 1982, the trustees made the mall and other nearby business areas a TIF district. That means the village's take of local property taxes would be frozen at its 1982 level. Any additional money raised from higher property assessments--which are the anticipated result of an even more successful downtown area--can be used to pay for special projects. The Oak Park TIF fund has already paid for a new parking garage, and would be used to pay off the $4 million debt for restreeting, too. In this way, boosters claim, the village can keep its business district in top shape with no added expense--in the form of increased taxes--to residential property owners.

Although it sounds great, it isn't quite the whole story. Like all TIF expenditures, money spent for special projects, like reopening Lake Street, is money that could otherwise be turned over to the village and spent elsewhere, for instance on the public schools. Bell has a lot of complaints about the TIF system.

"TIFs are a scam," he says. "They're supposed to be used for economically devastated communities, which Oak Park is not. And we could put that money to better use. I think it's a stupid thing to do with $4 million; we're blowing the money. The elementary schools are running a deficit, our high schools could use more money. The records show that the high schools would get $190,000 this year, and the elementary schools about $250,000, if the money didn't go to the TIF [already in place]."

Village officials, on the other hand, ask residents to view the taxes from downtown properties diverted to downtown improvements as an investment in Oak Park's future--or money sacrificed by the schools today in the hope of a payoff tomorrow in increased city revenues.

It is the same argument employed by TIF supporters in municipalities across the state, including Chicago. It almost always engenders the following response from community activists: if voters and officials really want to rebuild their sagging neighborhoods, they should quit mucking about with confusing tax incentives and send some politicians to Washington who will, quite simply, spend more federal money on the inner city.

In any event, the Lake Street battle is heading for a major showdown at the June 6 board of trustees meeting. "That's the day when the board has to decide whether to approve the TIF expenditure for opening Lake Street," says Bell. "If they do so, they can begin construction this summer. Our lawyers are looking at everything, but they don't know if we can legally stop them."

The group can, of course, turn up the political heat. At a recent public hearing on the matter, they packed village hall with their supporters. As Bell sees it, the final vote is far from certain. There are seven trustees on the board, although only six will vote: Board President Clifford Osborn admitted to having attended an Indianapolis Colts football game as the guest of Robert Irsay, who not only owns the team but property on the mall and favors restreeting. To obviate any question of impropriety, Osborn will abstain from voting.

"If the vote were taken right now, we'd lose four to two," says Bell. "I know that sounds surprising since the overwhelming majority of people in Oak Park want Lake Street closed. But our trustees are not professional politicians. Most of them probably hate the job--they think it's a pain in the neck. They're voting for the change because they think it's right; It doesn't matter what the public thinks.

"Our big chance is trustee Tom Edwalds," the potential swing vote. "He's for restreeting, but he also says he's willing to do what the people want. Well, I can go out to the mall on any day and find a dozen people who want to keep Lake Street closed. We've got over one thousand signatures, and they're not just from Oak Park. They cover 50 communities and ten states. Tourism is a growing industry. We've got the Frank Lloyd Wright homes, and this [the mall] fits right in with that. I don't understand how in the face of all this opposition they can take the mall and just tear it down."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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