Neighbors group wants more Oak Park focus on North Avenue
North Avenue Neighborhood Association members Joe Graber and Judith Alexander along North Avenue on Saturday. | James C. Svehla~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 15, 2013 6:39AM
OAK PARK — As a 10-year-old, Judith Alexander couldn’t wait to move back to her beloved native Chicago after her parents moved the family to the North Shore.
“As soon as I could, I moved back to the city,” she said. “At the time, I thought, ‘I don’t know if I could marry someone who lived in the suburbs.’” But Cupid’s arrow struck.
When Alexander moved to Oak Park in 1982 to be with the object of her affections, Joe Graber, the main thoroughfare that runs just north of where the couple lives thrived.
“When I moved here, North Avenue was a much nicer street,” she said.
Alexander said she’s not certain what forces led to the area’s decline.
“Neither the residents nor the village were paying attention,” she said. “Shame on the village, but also shame on us for not asking for some attention.”
Several years ago when Cash America Pawn of Chicago sought to locate at the corner of North and Ridgeland avenues, Alexander rallied with her husband and neighbors, forming the North Avenue Neighborhood Association. The association’s boundaries are Austin Boulevard to the east; Harlem Avenue to the west; North Avenue to the north; and Division Street to the south. The organization has about 100 members.
“More people are interested on the east side because we have more problems on that stretch,” Alexander said. “The kind of retail you have on North Avenue Chicago is creeping further and further west, and we want to stop that.”
Alexander, who has an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, said pawn shops, check cashing shops and payday loan operations not only prey on the poor but are a sign of urban decay that prevents desirable economic investment.
“I’m very pro-business, especially pro-small-business,” she said. “I want Oak Park to be a business-friendly town, especially for small business people.”
North Avenue Neighborhood Association lost its battle against Cash America Pawn but is determined to win the war, teaming up with Galewood residents to prevent an EZ Pawn from moving onto North Avenue near Narragansett Avenue. The shop would be on the north side of the street, in the Chicago city limits.
Alexander said she sees the North Avenue corridor as the neglected step-child of the Village of Oak Park.
“We would like people to drive west of Austin on North Avenue and think, ‘Wow, this is a different neighborhood,’” the North Harvey Avenue resident said.
But Loretta Daly, business services manager for the Village of Oak Park, bristles at the notion that less attention is paid to the northside corridor than to any of the other 11 business districts.
“There is certainly an interest in moving along any kind of projects that bring value to North Avenue,” she said.
North Avenue, for instance, was highlighted during the 2012 Oak Park Broker and Developer Tour sponsored by the Village of Oak Park and the Oak Park Development Corporation, she said. The tour was intended to give new potential businesses a view of available sites and data on household incomes; daytime, evening and tourist traffic; and commercial investment.
In addition, Daly said, Oak Park committed about $2.55 million to the North Avenue streetscape project that included lighting, sidewalks and medians from Harlem Avenue to Austin Boulevard.
“Granted, that project has been slowed down and is on hiatus because of Chicago, ” she added. The project stopped prematurely around Oak Park Avenue.
Alexander said she plans to request a ban on currency exchange, payday loan operations and pawn shops.
But such a request likely is unnecessary. Village zoning administrator Mike Bruce said local ordinance requires special zoning for any of these types of businesses. A district perimeter overlay that includes anything within the boundaries of Oak Park, such as the south side of North Avenue, prevents such a special zone from being granted.
“The overlay can be a supplement to, kind of makes tweaks to the underlying zoning requirements,” he said.
According to the village Zoning Ordinance Section 3.9.2, the perimeter overlay was established to “improve the visual quality of the perimeter area; encourage a mix of desirable retail uses; protect adjacent residential areas; restrict undesirable signage; and limit undesirable uses.”
For more information on the North Avenue Neighborhood Association, email Alexander at email@example.com.