Agencies gear up for North Avenue planning

Grants to fund transportation, economic development studies for corridor in 2018

October 20th, 2017 4:55 PM

Photo by Alexa Rogals

By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

A portion of North Avenue, which divides Oak Park and the city of Chicago, is about to go under the microscope by planning and transportation organizations in an effort to revitalize the commercial corridor.

In 2015, the Illinois Department of Transportation awarded the Chicago Department of Transportation a $225,000 grant for various transportation improvements – the money got held up as a result of the state budget impasse but has since been disbursed with the goal of beginning the study in early 2018.

The most recent shot in the arm comes from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), which announced on Oct. 19 that it will be included in the organization's Local Technical Assistance program, which will work to develop a plan for the corridor to improve economic vitality, sustainability and livability.

Meanwhile, the village of Oak Park is set to release a study by public finance consultant Ehlers Inc. that explores potential economic development engines of establishing a tax increment finance (TIF) district, a business district or a special service area on North Avenue.

CMAP's involvement in the planning effort was made possible by The North Avenue District (T-NAD), a nonprofit community group that promotes revitalization of the business corridor from Harlem Avenue and Austin Boulevard.

Judith Alexander, chairwoman of T-NAD and founder of the North Avenue Neighbors Association, said in a telephone interview that T-NAD submitted the application for a CMAP Local Technical Assistance grant.

She said CMAP's inclusion is good news because the Chicago Department of Transportation study, which runs from Harlem to Central Avenue, focuses on transportation-related issues such as parking, traffic, walkability and accessibility.

"It's a good thing, because we also wanted a plan for land use and redevelopment, but the [Chicago] study doesn't cover that," she said.

Alexander said she particularly hopes CMAP planners address revitalization on the east end of the corridor near Austin Boulevard, which has more vacant and more poorly maintained buildings.

"One of our questions is, 'What's it going to take to turn that around?'" she said.

Since the corridor is split between two municipalities, both will play a role in the planning efforts.

Alexander said that Chicago 29th Ward Alderman Chris Taliaferro and Oak Park Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb both wrote letters of support in T-NAD's application for the CMAP grant.

Abu-Taleb said in his letter of support dated June 9, that Oak Park has set aside $50,000 to prepare a land-use and development plan for the Oak Park side of North Avenue. He noted that the village agrees with T-NAD that a land use development plan is needed for both sides of the corridor.

"We … have had preliminary conversations with the Chicago Department of Transportation regarding a joint planning process," Abu-Taleb wrote. "We believe that approximately $100,000 would be necessary for a project of this magnitude."

Alexander and her organizations have advocated for years for a comprehensive plan to revitalize North Avenue, which is described by a preliminary version of the Ehlers report as "declining for decades."

"There's been a proliferation of vacancies and negative uses, including currency exchanges, payday/title loan operations and pawn shops," the Ehlers report notes, adding that the district "qualifies as a blighted/conservation area based on aging/deteriorating/obsolete structures, parcel size/shape unsuitable for redevelopment and equalized assessed valuation trends."

It notes that office and retail space on North Avenue "exceeds demand" and traffic volume has "increased steadily, making the district less and less walkable/pedestrian-friendly."

The increased traffic pushes vehicles into adjacent neighborhoods, prompting the establishment of cul-de-sacs and diverters, according to the Ehlers report, "but these also make the district's restaurants and stores less accessible to residents and parking more difficult for its business."

The last plan for the corridor was completed in 1996 and "did not include land use or design recommendations …" according to the Ehlers report.

"Other than a streetscape project (one-third completed in 2007) and some planters, the district has seen no public investment in redevelopment," the Ehlers report notes.

The report states that "the situation is far from hopeless" and the district includes a number of successful businesses, restaurants and medical and related offices.

"The just-announced closing of the North/Harlem Sears and several other relatively large vacant parcels on the Chicago side represent redevelopment opportunities," according to the Ehlers report.