Packard or Pete's?

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By Dan Haley

Editor and Publisher

In the good old days when cars were king, they built car dealerships to last.

Here in Oak Park we've got one final dealership on the north side of Madison Street that has outlasted multiple brands of cars that used to be sold there — think Packard, think Mercury. And now, entirely vacant for well more than a decade, it has outlasted any hope that the good old free market is going to claim it with all its handsomeness and all its decay and put it back in use.

Packaged with the real estate Oak Park's village government has too long owned on the north side of Madison at Oak Park Avenue, the vacant Packard building, 644 Madison, is to become home to a second Oak Park location of Pete's Fresh Market and some other small retail.

Now there's an idea that makes sense. Who could object? Empty, untaxed land. An obsolete car dealership. Turned into a property- and sales-tax-generating machine with a trusted vendor and no height issues.

This should have been easy.

 But this is Oak Park so here comes the screwball twist. Last week the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission voted unanimously to recommend that the Packard building be preserved. Perhaps the commission should also recommend that the Packard Company spring back into life and again produce luxury automobiles that could be sold out of this relic.

Any of this sound familiar? That's because half a decade ago under pressure from the very same preservationists, Oak Park tried and failed to convince Aldi to buy this property, preserve the greater part of the façade so that it could sell groceries at discount prices. Shockingly, Aldi chose to build its medium-sized box store elsewhere.

The building has only decayed since then.

At that point, at least, the preservation commission admitted that saving the entire building was unlikely since the back third of the structure is a series of ramps designed to move Packards from one level to the next. Hard to incorporate ramps into a grocery store — into any use other than a defunct car brand.

I like this building. And I loved when, back in the 1980s, the Cadillac dealer across the street bought the building and removed the stunningly hideous metal grating that had covered the façade for several decades. It is a handsome building. E.E. Roberts was a famous architect for good reason. 

But unless the preservationists have a way to fund its continued use as an empty shell, have a scheme to provide taxpayers with the millions of dollars lost if the Pete's Market deal goes south, then it is time to save the fascinating gargoyles built into the façade and let progress take its course.

There was a moment when Madison Street in Oak Park was the car-buying destination of Chicago. From the 1920s and into the mid-1960s, Madison Street was home to every major car brand. Village hall now sits on the old Chevy dealership. There are townhouses at Madison and Wisconsin where they used to sell Oldsmobiles. Where Sugar Beet sells organic produce, they used to peddle Fords. There is a branch of Chase bank on the old Clark Pontiac site on the northwest corner of Madison and Oak Park. Soon there will be senior housing where Foley-Rice last sold Cadillacs on the south side of the street. 

Back in the day, they built edifices becoming America's love affair with cars. It is hard to fathom, but as many years have passed since the car dealers abandoned Oak Park as the golden age of car sales lasted in the village. That might be the signal that it is time to fully move forward. 

Contact:
Email: dhaley@wjinc.com Twitter: @OPEditor

Reader Comments

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Garett Auriemma  

Posted: February 22nd, 2019 3:21 PM

Maybe Pete's should have gone into the space on North and Lombard where Oak Park Market is now struggling. If nothing else, having that be a store's second location (as opposed to their only location) might allow them a bit more flexibility in terms of rotating and adjusting stock levels, so they wouldn't be at as high a risk of unsold, spoiled merchandise.

Jason Cohen  

Posted: February 21st, 2019 2:53 PM

I wonder why Pete's wants to move there to begin with? They are in between Sugar Beet and Jewel. Sugar Beet is a bit of a different style grocery store but Jewel is certainly direct competition. There's even Carnival not that far away. That Jewel is pretty gross so maybe they believe they can drive them out? I like Pete's so it's great if they expand. Just feels like too many grocery stores in that area. It would be nice if they kept the facade as it would look really nice and Madison could use some nicer looking buildings. My hope is Pete's and the village can work together and come up with a reasonable solution. If it comes down to it I think Pete's should be the priority. They are a good OP partner already and will offer a fair number of additional local jobs as well.

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: February 21st, 2019 2:06 PM

Let's hear from Pete's and see if this is a real breaker.

Aaron McManus from Oak Park  

Posted: February 21st, 2019 1:07 PM

Perhaps we could instead eliminate the economic incentives to keep commercial property vacant while extorting taxpayers for money. Why buy an historic building in an historic town if you're just gonna tear it down? There's plenty of other vacant parcels waiting for development. What was historically sold has no relevance to the value of one of the few commercial buildings designed by Roberts. Let's quit distracting people from the reality that our current tax system benefits really rich landlords who can afford to keep properties vacant until the taxpayers coughs up enough profit. This isn't the historic commission costing people money ?" look to who is making the actual profits off the transaction if you want to know who benefits. That should be obvious to anyone who has been around Chicagoland real estate for longer than a week. Follow the money.

Alice Wellington  

Posted: February 21st, 2019 11:02 AM

Ah, so that's why we don't have Aldi here, and now it looks like we won't have second Pete's store, either. Enjoy your decaying eyesores!

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: February 21st, 2019 10:20 AM

Couldn't the building be repurposed to maintain its historical relevance and yet function as a grocery store? The Walgreens on the corner of Madison and Oak Park did a good job of maintaining the old facade. I'm sure with some clever creativity, both the historians and progressives could be pleased.

Alan Reed  

Posted: February 21st, 2019 5:24 AM

Is Oak Park a museum, or a relevant and thriving modern Village? It seems we have a clear choice. BTW, not everything that is old belongs in a museum --You can sell tickets to the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, but probably not to the old Packard dealership. Perhaps those that love the grotesques can buy them and display them on their mantle?

Kitty Conklin  

Posted: February 20th, 2019 9:01 PM

Interesting. The Plan Commission only met 24 hrs ago to discuss the senior housing project. The Village Board hasn't yet addressed it. Yes, the editor is stating as fact that "Soon there will be senior housing where Foley-Rice last sold Cadillacs on the south side of the street." How do you know this to be fact?

Deborah Risteen Mercer  

Posted: February 20th, 2019 6:55 PM

So since all the other former showrooms are gone, we might as well get rid of the last one? Why not save it as a remember of what has been lost?

Brent Borgerson  

Posted: February 20th, 2019 5:21 PM

Wasn't the gym on the South side of Madison just East of Oak Park an auto dealer also?

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