To build or not to build a 20-story high-rise in Oak Park

While a proposed 20-story high-rise in Oak Park is unique in that it would be built just outside the Frank Lloyd Wright historic district, the conversation about whether the building should be constructed or not is one that may be facing more suburbs in the coming years:

She said the building’s size has been the primary complaint, but there has also been grumbling over the modern design looming over the historic Wright district.

“I think, in the end, a lot of people could live with the aesthetics if it weren’t for the height and the density,” she said.

Officials have been trying to attract new business and tourists by making the village more “walkable.” About $15 million in streetscaping improvements has been proposed, with $5 million already approved by the board.

Village Manager Tom Barwin says the building would help visually draw the downtown district together while creating a “Hey, what’s that?” mentality.

In built-out communities like Oak Park that have little or no open space, projects like this are going to become more commonplace. It sounds like the typical criticisms are being raised: the building is too tall, there are too many housing units (is this tied to the type of people who live in apartments or the strain on city services?), and it doesn’t fit with the character of the community. But the city suggests it has a plan to be more “walkable,” a buzzword among many designers (and perhaps started by New Urbanists), which is supposed to reduce congestion and improve neighborhood and community life.

On one hand, it might be easy to look at the criticisms of the project and suggest that some residents would resist almost any kind of change to their community. They know the Oak Park that they like and they will do a lot to try to maintain that. On the other hand, if land-challenged suburbs are going to experience any growth or change, redevelopment is going to be necessary. Of course, communities don’t want too many projects that are completely out of place but they don’t want to remain stagnant either. The trick is going to be how to balance the character of the community with change that is going to happen. Perhaps it doesn’t have to come in the form of 20-story buildings but I suspect more large Chicago suburbs, including places like Naperville, are going to seriously consider high-rise projects in the next few decades.

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