Roosevelt Road is a tough street to fix. It is essentially a small highway – the Jr. Ike – through Forest Park. Four lanes of traffic flowing between banks of odd and mixed uses. The south side of the street is far better defined with the Forest Park Mall, Walmart, and, of course, Portillo’s, the closest thing to a destination on the street. The north side of Roosevelt is the ultimate odd assemblage, testament to the era, decades back, when Forest Park didn’t seem to believe in zoning. That’s how you get worn down houses and cheap apartment buildings abutting strip malls and taverns.
In well-targeted efforts the village government has been quietly attentive to Roosevelt. Creating the village’s first Tax Increment Financing District (TIF) back in 1993 to help fund the tax-generous Walmart store was a wise move. And creating a second TIF with an eye to the inevitable day when the U.S. Army will vacate its thoroughly underused reserve center on the street was visionary. The Army is still holding on. But the day will come when it sells off surplus property and the Roosevelt Road site will be on the list. Forest Park will be ready with the TIF, a thoughtful land use plan and effective lobbying of politicians to help steer this property into the village’s hands.
Now though, the village council Ð mainly the mayor Ð seems ready to look more broadly at Roosevelt Road Ð its ugliness and purposelessness. Local officials have watched as Oak Park, Berwyn and Cicero have worked cooperatively in recent years to land a massive state/federal grant to pay for a two-mile beautification of what had been a hideous, disconnected stretch. We agree the street looks better, though there are a discouraging range of complaints over shoddy construction work that will make this project look a lot less shiny in years to come.
But to us here is the lesson on the stretch of Roosevelt Road to Forest Park’s east. The streetscaping was paid for with grants from non-local sources. Where there is good economic development progress being made is on the Berwyn side of the street where an intact TIF is now able to invest in specific and immediate projects Ð Culvers and an innovative music school for kids Ð that are spurring lots of enthusiasm and now sales tax dollars. The TIF-less Oak Park side has cur-li-que lampposts and the same buildings that have been empty for a decade.
Economic development works best when there are an array of arrows in the quiver. Put all the limited resources into fancy streetscape without a major reserve or other partners to fund key commercial projects and you can end up with a lot of nice benches. The magic on Madison Street 15 years ago was the combination of a unifying streetscape of a truly worn-out street, civic-minded private partners who made critical investments in key buildings, and a welcoming village government that eased new business onto the street with a minimum of red tape.
The comprehensive plan process is just ahead in Forest Park. Roosevelt Road will be a major focus of that study. That makes this an excellent time to gather local input, expert input and to consider all opportunities Ð an expanded TIF, enterprise zones, private sector champions.
The future of Roosevelt Road is bright but it will take continued thoughtful, innovative planning, and considerable patience.