Marion St. Pedestrian Mall
Lake Street and Marion Street
Oak Park, IL
Submitted by: Kathryn Jonas
Marion Street Mall is a 30 year old, two-block pedestrian mall in Oak Park's downtown historic district.
The Marion Street Mall is the last remnant of Oak Park's downtown pedestrian mall, the main portion of which (Lake Street) was re-streeted in 1988 with design consultation provided by the PPS. This made sense because Lake Street is part of Illinois State Rte 20, which extends from Chicago to Dubuque, Iowa. Installation of the Lake Street Mall in 1973 seriously disrupted traffic flow through Oak Park, brought much through traffic into the residential neighborhoods, and made it difficult for shoppers to find their way to the shops. Re-streeting solved this situation, but it caused controversy in the community as people had come to love the open, lushly landscaped mall for gathering and shopping. A two block portion of the Marion Street portion was left as a mall to continue providing a public space for the community. It is lined with historic buildings with shops, and is located adjacent to the Metra, elevated El tracks and PACE bus service, making the Marion Mall a very heavily used pedestrian way. The Mall is also the site of many of the Village's outdoor festivals and it draws people from all over the region because of its unique pedestrian shopping and opportunities to sit outside at cafes in the summer. It has become well-loved by all - the elderly, families with children, teenagers, couples, and the disabled who can enjoy this space without the usual traffic concerns. It has truly become Oak Park's public square - which we otherwise would not have.
Many Oak Parkers, including me, are walkers and we often end up on the Mall for ice cream or a bite to eat. I invariably meet people I know and we can have a conversation without the noise and fumes of automobile traffic. The people who live in the condos and apartments above the shops moved here specifically because of its pedestrian atmosphere.
Over 1500 Oak Parkers and users of the Marion Mall have signed a petition to keep the Mall, which we will present to the Village Board on Monday, March 19th. They have provided many thoughtful comments about how important the Mall is to them and their families.
The Village is now in the final design phase for converting this beloved public space to a 2-way street with a 27-space parking lot. This is not what the majority of the community wants. The Village never posted any signs of its intent on the Marion Mall during the planning stages and most people were shocked to learn of the re-streeting when announced by the Village. The Village says the re-streeting is being done to help retail, but there are in fact significantly more retail vacancies on the re-streeted Lake St. portion. Many shopkeepers we have talked to are opposed to the re-streeting plans and believe that an upgrading of the poorly maintained Mall is what is needed.
The Marion Mall is worthy of the Hall of Shame because maintenance has been sorely neglected in the past 20 years. The Village has admitted no TIF dollars generated from the district since 1983 have been used for maintenance on the Mall. The user-friendly wood benches that provided comfortable seating for the elderly were removed and replaced with backless benches with a steel bar down the middle. The original granite pavers have heaved in many areas, creating safety issues. The concrete portion has numerous cracks and has settled in some sections holding so much water after a rainfall that merchants refer to it as Lake Marion. There is so much clutter (signs, granite pillars, newspaper boxes, telephone and other utility pedestals, old bent garbage containers, and signs that block the view down the mall. Yet in spite of the lack of repair and maintenance, people still flock to Marion Mall because it is the one commercial district in all of downtown Oak Park that functions as a public space.
We have many ideas for making Marion Mall a more beautiful, vibrant shopping district. Hundreds of residents have made suggestions that show much creativity and a desire to improve this area. This area is distinctly different from the situation on Lake St. where re-streeting made sense. Many of the buildings require major upgrading of their physical condition, and we have suggested a combination of enforcement of the building codes and allocation of some TIF dollars for restoration vs. demolition and new construction. We would like to see the Village adopt the National Trust's Main Street program for the entire downtown area to help revitalize the retail based on historic preservation principles which have proved successful in thousands of similar towns. We have already brought the Main Street representatives, many of whom live in Oak Park, to make presentations to our Board, but these efforts have not been successful to date. We need a better mix of retail and some better quality restaurants and cafes that will attract more people, especially in the evening. Right now, the downtown is quiet at night except for the Lake Theater. By revitalizing this area, the 80,000 annual tourists who visit Oak Park to tour the nearby Frank Lloyd Wright neighborhood would be encouraged to stay and dine and shop. We would like to see the sense of community that exists in this area enhanced by a complete redesign that makes the Mall more beautiful and more functional. We envision more music events to showcase the incredible musical talent in Oak Park. Our schools' music programs are some of the finest in the country and our students need more opportunities to perform publicly. Some residents have suggested that Marion Mall could function as Oak Park's passegiata, following the Italian custom of strolling at night in the public square while window shopping and gathering with friends. It is probably the only location with such a diversity of people: families with children, business people at lunch, seniors having conversations on benches, single, couples, teenagers, the disabled. One local architect has suggested that a redesigned Marion Mall could provide an ideal pedestrian link to our lovely Austin Gardens to the north and Mills Park to the south. We have senior housing at both of these locations so this could greatly benefit them and offer more opportunities for walking to our downtown area. Last, but not least, with environmental issues being so important today, we believe it is critical that our local decisions align with a more sustainable design for this last remnant of our pedestrian Mall.
What Puts Marion St. Pedestrian Mall in the Hall of Shame?
The space is not as visually accessible as it should be because of all the various clutter and poor design of space.
Lack of comfortable site furniture, overall poor physical condition of the mall and the historic buildings.
Lack of users at night, lack of good restaurants, cafes and lack of desirable retail.
In spite of the neglect, people still use the Mall. I do know many people who are too embarrassed to take visitors here. They go to the Avenue/Lake area instead.
History & Background
Our Save the Marion Street Mall group has obtained over 1500 petition signatures (on-line and paper) to keep the Marion Mall a pedestrian space and improve it so that it is more vibrant.