Village officials and business owners are trying to position Madison Street for continued success after seeing the downtown area explode with new storefronts in recent years. A series of meetings on the subject could lead to several changes in allowed uses. A proposed amendment to the zoning regulations that govern the business district doesn’t call for radical change, according to Village Administrator Tim Gillian, but there are some noteworthy adjustments.
Of the types of businesses currently allowed on Madison, two may be struck down. Theaters and “religious uses” are proposed to be cut from the list of storefronts requiring council approval – an extra step reserved for specific types of businesses looking to open on Madison – according to an amendment that will be considered by the zoning board of appeals on Dec. 7. Should the changes go through, existing theaters and church offices would be allowed to remain, according to Gillian, but they would face additional hurdles if they wished to expand, relocate within the district, or renovate their properties.
“This is no attempt to get rid of existing businesses,” Gillian said.
Circle Theatre, 7300 Madison, is Forest Park’s lone performance troupe and spent much of 2008 looking for a new home after its performance space was purchased by a developer with plans of opening a boutique hotel. The non-profit storefront theater almost relocated to Oak Park. Circle Theatre has a lease to stay on Madison until Halloween 2010.
Kevin Bellie, artistic director for the theater, said he was not aware of the proposed zoning regulations, but would find it “odd” for the village to target a family-friendly theater that draws crowds from Chicago and nearby suburbs.
“My guess is it has to do with taxes,” Bellie speculated. “As far as adding value to Madison Street, they may want to think about those places that cause problems and those places that don’t.
“An awful lot of events in Forest Park are liquor-focused.”
Living Word, 7306 Madison, is a mega-church that holds worship services at a sprawling facility on Roosevelt Road. The ministry also runs a business incubator in Forest Park. In Bellwood, Living Word has a parochial school for students in grades K-8.
A spokeswoman for Living Word said the church was not aware of the proposed amendment.
Other proposed changes include limiting animal boarding and grooming services to storefronts located west of Desplaines Avenue. Professional offices would only be allowed to open east of Desplaines if they are located above the first floor, or at least 50-feet from the street’s right-of-way.
According to the current regulations, should a business operating as a “non-conforming use” close, the next tenant of the property may use the space in the same manner if they move in within six months. Under the proposed amendment, that window shrinks to 30 days.
Gas stations would also be nixed.
“Obviously it’s not desirable in a downtown business district,” Gillian said of pumping stations.
The downtown business district stretches from Harlem on the east, roughly to Park Avenue on the west, and was first established in 2006. Its emphasis is on promoting retail and restaurants in a “pedestrian friendly … shopping experience,” according to a brief preamble in the ordinance.
The proposed changes are the result of several discussions that began almost immediately upon Gillian assuming the administrator’s position in mid September. With Commissioner Mark Hosty, Gillian met nearly a dozen times with Laurie Kokenes, executive director of the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce and Development, business owners Connie Brown and Augie Aleksy, bank owner Jerry Vainisi and a few others. That group poured over the particulars of how Forest Park could best guide future developments in the business district.
Upwards of 30 business owners and chamber members attended a larger meeting to offer input as well, said Gillian.
Kokenes, director of the chamber of commerce, said that most of the changes are being proposed to bolster the number of retail shops on the street. Street-level office space, for example, can more easily be relocated to make room for more shopping. Because restaurants and retailers haven’t caught on west of Desplaines, the approach is to encourage office development in that area.
As for tighter regulation of theaters, Kokenes said she has not seen the specific language of the proposed amendment and is reluctant to comment on whether live performances should be squeezed out. She praised Circle Theatre as being a vital part of Forest Park’s rebirth, and said the non-profit theater absolutely draws shoppers and diners to the area.
“We love having Circle Theatre on Madison,” Kokenes said. “They’ve been here a long time and they’ve been part of the community.”