In the Chicago suburb of Oak Lawn, IL, a once-sleepy commercial strip has been transformed into a denser, more pedestrian-friendly area where people now live, work, and shop—and is anchored by a new commuter train station that’s become one of the busiest in the region.
Previously, there was little appeal to that area. A commercial part of 95th Street that had small single-story storefronts built in the 1940s-1960s, “there hadn’t been much reinvestment,” says project developer David Strosberg of Morningside Group. As a result, as he explains, “The city of Oak Lawn was looking for a more urban model, a higher-density model, one that could become part of creating a downtown area within this suburb.”
In an innovative public-private partnership with Morningside, the city of Oak Lawn used tax income for financing, acquiring the various pieces of property along the strip then assembling the site into a developable state. Based on market demand, the city knew that they needed additional housing and retail, along with some sort of destination space, to help build their overall ideal. And all of this construction would take place around transit; more specifically, a new Metra commuter rail station.
Completed in 2007, the project met the mixed-use goals. The Metra station whisks commuters into Chicago in just 20 minutes, and an adjacent five-story parking garage accommodates 821 cars. Two complexes offer luxury condominiums, there is now 24,000-square-feet of retail space where cafés and restaurants also comingle, and a new Children’s Museum attracts more than 100,000 visitors each year.
To further “create a sense of space that is attractive and more pedestrian friendly,” as Village Manager Larry Deetjen says, landscaping, street furniture, and public art provide a final flourish. Over the next few years, even more improvements are planned. “The Village is bullish on the area, and is currently working with more than five developers on concepts for the next wave of mixed-use TOD-oriented redevelopment,” says Deetjen.
Much of the area’s rejuvenation can be attributed to the fact that Morningside is well versed in transit-oriented development (TOD) such as this. As Strosberg says, “there’s a joke around our office that we don’t look at a site for redevelopment unless you can throw a stone and hit railroad tracks.” Overall, TOD is gaining traction across the country, as the numerous benefits of TOD are demonstrated. Statistics show that people who live near TOD are two to five times more likely to commute by transit than people who don’t. Moreover, by promoting walking, biking, and public transit, as well as increased suburban density, a 2013 study by the EPA outlines how TOD also helps reduce greenhouse gases, decrease sprawl, and increase overall community health.
It’s certainly working for Oak Lawn. “It’s a night and day difference from what it was before,” says Strosberg. “Retail activity is much greater, parking lots are filled, you see people walking on the streets—there’s a vitality there today that wasn’t there before.” Though more is still to be done, success stories such as this show the great potential for TOD in any suburban setting.