Looking to spur economic development in Forest Park, the village council is turning its attention to the Roosevelt Road business district.

“Roosevelt Road could use a little help,” said Mayor Anthony Calderone at the May 14 village council meeting. The mayor suggested expanding the current Tax Increment Financing [TIF] district from Desplaines Avenue all the way to Harlem Avenue. Currently the TIF zone reaches only to Hannah Avenue. “When the local government takes action to spruce up the area, [businesses] take notice.”

“We’d like to be in anticipation of development for some of those Roosevelt Road commercial buildings,” said Calderone later in an interview. “From Circle Avenue east on the north side of the street there are buildings that are ripe for some type of development on a look-forward basis. There are mixed use, even single family homes there,” he said.

“It’s better to have a plan for Roosevelt.”

The mayor has repeatedly said publicly that “no town has two downtowns,” when asked about development on Roosevelt. But he said he thinks sprucing up the streetscape might help spur developers to consider Roosevelt.

That’s what has happened on Roosevelt to the east of Forest Park.

Over the past two years, Roosevelt Road has gotten a facelift between Austin and Harlem through a cooperative project of the municipalities of Oak Park, Berwyn and Cicero and the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT). The construction — which slowed Roosevelt traffic for months — combines streetscaping, planting of trees and flowers, benches, bike racks and garbage bins, new streetlamps, the reduction of traffic lanes through bump-outs and lighted pedestrian crosswalks, similar to the new ones on Madison Street.

Any Roosevelt plan must be made in cooperation with IDOT, because the road is classified as a state thoroughfare. The majority of funding for east Roosevelt Road’s facelift came from the state and federal governments, so the project was bid out by the state.

But the village board of Oak Park heard complaints about one of the project’s major contractors, A Lamp, at a meeting in June 2011. State rules require that Illinois has to go with the lowest qualified bidder, despite the fact that Oak Park has had issues with A Lamp in the past.

Calderone said Roosevelt street beautification might mirror some of the elements to the east, but they’d look “carefully” at contractors. “Everything looks nice when it’s new,” he said.

Calderone acknowledged that slowing traffic down to two lanes causes backups during rush hour, as neighbors to the east and on Madison Street have discovered. “The intent is to slow traffic down, first for pedestrian and vehicular safety. At the same time, if you’re trying to improve the business climate, the motorist has more opportunity to be exposed to businesses that are located in the district.”

Right now, the TIF has “around $2 million” said Calderone. “That won’t take you far at all. But we can ask engineers to come up with a conceptual plan that they can work on to put together cost estimates,” he said.

A likely development scenario on Roosevelt would involve the large parcel at 7402 where the Army Reserve headquarters currently sits.

Last year the village hired Chicago consultants Land Vision to come up with a plan for eventual redevelopment of the property. Land Vision produced a handful of scenarios including a strip mall, hotel, car dealership and office space. The property is not currently for sale, but Calderone asked consultants to look forward to the day when the Army might sell.

“The Army [property] presents a fabulous possibility. It’s currently tax exempt, so anything developed there would immediately go onto the tax rolls,” said Calderone. The Army property is within the boundary of the existing TIF.

But if the village expanded the TIF to Harlem, “a lot could hinge on the Army property. What could be developed there could set the tone for complimentary development on the other side of the street. There are challenges of mixed use and some of the single family homes may have outlived their purpose” said Calderone.

Calderone said that Walmart was given the first TIF in Forest Park in 1993 to develop the initial footprint of the store. “That was before my time.” A TIF collects the incremental increases in property taxes above a baseline set at the point the TIF is created. Instead of funneling those increases to a range of government entities including schools, park and the village itself, the increment is collected in the TIF fund to be spent on economic development initiatives. In the case of the Walmart TIF, the money collected has been used to service the debt on bonds floated to help Walmart build the initial store. Calderone says it was a good investment.

“The Walmart generates a huge amount of sales tax revenue for the village.” The current Walmart expansion had no financial help from the village, Calderone said.

At the May 14 council meeting, Commissioner Rory Hoskins, who previously worked for a commercial development site-finding firm, said that planter boxes and other pedestrian enhancements on Roosevelt Road were noticed and appreciated by neighbors. “The planters were very much a welcome change,” he said.

Hoskins also said that landscaping and floral arrangements at the Forest Park Mall and Ultra Foods were “a good start. Vegetation and greenery is always a welcome sight.” He also encouraged businesses to put in additional trash receptacles and said that “some of the bars” needed a reminder to clean up cigarette butts and garbage from in front of their shops. “I’ve noticed that a lot of the curbs on Roosevelt Road are cracked and crumbled. I also hope we can use some of the existing TIF monies to tighten up some of those curbs.”

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...

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