The changing economy and its effects on the retail streetscape may be best studied in the pre-war and post-war streetscape: pre and post First World War. This particular timeframe holds fascination as it depicts a landscape before and after the automobile’s influence. Oak Park offers another excellent set of examples: it has both types of development at hand.
Since the 1860’s, downtown Oak Park has been built up next to a commuter train station, and a rapid transit station in time. The largest source of traffic for these train stations was commuter traffic to and from Chicago. Storefronts were built up along adjacent streets. Though this area was never planned, it grew naturally, with many improvements over the years. The commuter train and rapid transit stations are still there, they generate a sizeable amount of foot traffic. While this neighbourhood has some storefront vacancies, it is a sought after location in Oak Park, perhaps one of the most economically vibrant in town. Odd, because this society has become so much more reliant on personal transportation – the automobile – since the initial development. This infrastructure and its layout still seem to work. Granted, there is an ongoing issue about car parking in this area, the sentiment being that more parking garages should be built to provide more accessibility for shoppers; in reality, the parking garages in existence draw on a substantial trade of commuters who park their vehicles to walk to the train stations.
As an aside, a very large parking garage might hold as many as 1000 cars, whereas a fully loaded commuter or rapid transit train may hold as many as 1000 people. While parking may be an attraction for commuters, it’s effect is limited. Most transit riders still seem to find other ways to get to the train.
While Oak Park grew naturally around its train stations in that era prior to mass ownership of automobiles, the town was bordered by country roads.
Using the First World War as a marker, a pivotal point in time because automobiles were becoming more widespread. The original Garden City concept of orderly development around train stations forming towns, and towns separated by open space was becoming passé ; all of the bits of the open space between established towns were now accessible point-to-point by automobile and seemed to be idyllic places to live. These areas were settled as ‘sprawl’. Our urban design patterns were still based on walkable towns, so these new areas settled by “automobile development” were awkward in their layout.
Areas of Oak Park like North Avenue were developed in this fashion in the 1920‘s. Small storefronts with large signs were built “cheek by jowl” along a busy highway, originally intended to move traffic from one town to another without stopping in between. Automobile parking happened on either side of this broad right-of-way. Additional parking was provided along the back of the storefronts, allowing customers to enter from either a front or back door. This led to confusion and an informality, as the ‘back doors’ alongside convenient parking also doubled as the service entrance. Architect and Urban Planner Victor Gruen, in his book “The Heart of Cities” chronicled this type of development.
In Oak Park, North Avenue has more vacancies than anywhere else in tow, and has become a favourite location for tattoo parlours and palm readers. The Village is probably coveting the property and sales tax revenue generated by marginal uses like these, and that this tax income is more difficult to come by in this economy.
Jumping ahead many years, it was the era after the Second World War that developed an urban model that located a building in the middle of a vast parking lot, the precursor of big box retailers and shopping malls. And oddly, this type of retailer isn’t doing that well either these days.
What goes around comes around.