Skokie’s train station tops weighty news year
Family and friends of the late Walker R. Allen gathered in April to take the first ride at the Oakton-Skokie Yellow Line station. Allen grew up in Skokie and planned to be there on this historic day. | Mike Isaacs~Sun-Times Media
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Updated: December 27, 2012 8:47AM
SKOKIE — The opening of Skokie’s downtown train station topped local news this year, but it was far from the only news that came chugging along through the village.
Although Skokie felt the effects of a sour economy taking its sweet time to recover, there was still plenty of positive economic development news. A horrifying tragedy in spring led the village to take action to make the streets safer — especially near schools. A village-proposed rental housing licensing plan met with strong backlash from landlords, and the Skokie Theater, whose future has been uncertain the last few years, found a new owner and new stability.
Other news stories also could have made our top five. The village gave more teeth to its animal ordinance after a few incidents where dogs killed or injured other dogs; the Health Department released its first five-year blueprint for the future; voters approved a measure allowing Skokie to team with other municipalities in shopping for electricity, thereby lowering bills; and the Illinois Holocaust Museum continued its mission to educate new generations about genocide and standing up against cruelty and bullying.
1. Station opens in downtown Skokie
In April, when that first early morning train pulled up to the Oakton Street stop in downtown Skokie, it marked not only the biggest story of the year but the ending of a 10-year campaign.
That’s how long key village officials lobbied for a downtown train station, a Yellow Line stop between Dempster Street’s Skokie Swift on the north and the Howard Street station on the south.
It was a time of celebration for about 40 early morning passengers who sacrificed sleep for history.
Called Oakton-Skokie, the station marked the CTA’s first new “L” station to open in 18 years. Since the mid 1960s, the Skokie Swift had whisked commuters between Howard and Dempster Streets, serving as a direct shuttle line.
The project cost $20 million, with $14 million from outside sources.
One reason the project took so long to complete is that it required cooperation among the village, the RTA, the CTA, the Illinois Department of Transportation and the federal government. Upgrading traffic signals was especially challenging.
Village leaders view the station as a crucial step in revitalizing the downtown, a long-time goal. It also was a big advancement for the nearby Illinois Science + Technology Park. Officials there said it will be convenient for many of the current 1,400 employees, but it also will aid in attracting new tenants.
Mayor George Van Dusen was especially pleased since he pushed for the station for at least a decade.
“It’s going to take at least a year to build ridership up,” the mayor said during a summer celebration.
2. Tragedy leads to safety measures
The death of 8-year-old Carter Vo in May stunned the community and spurred the village to take action.
Vo was out for a bicycle ride May 21 when he was struck by a vehicle that collided with another car and went out of control. The driver was charged with one felony count of aggravated driving under the influence resulting in death and one misdemeanor count of driving under the influence of drugs. The fatal collision, which occurred at Main Street and St. Louis Avenue near Middleton School, reawakened community concerns about safety, especially near schools.
A safety analysis of the area was conducted and a 10-member action committee assembled to review the analysis and to create and implement an action plan.
Village Trustee Randy Roberts, chairman of the committee, guaranteed something positive will come from the tragedy.
In August ,the Village Board approved 10 committee-recommended safety measures for the area, including a new stoplight at Main Street and Central Park Avenue and reducing the speed limit on Main.
3. Rental licensing plan angers landlords
A proposed village-backed program to license almost all rental housing units in Skokie immediately proved controversial with many landlords.
Village officials believed the licensing proposal would strengthen communication between rental property owners and the municipality. The village described the program as preventative but more than one landlord saw the program as punitive.
The Skokie Voice residents’ association also supported the program after conducting its own research on crime in the village.
The original program called for qualifying landlords to pay a licensing fee, attend a landlord-training class for certification and adopt a crime-free addendum in their leases.
After several public forums where landlords vehemently opposed the rental housing licensing program, the Village Board scheduled a vote in October, but delayed the vote to see if a compromise could be reached, following more outcry by landlords.
Mayor George Van Dusen formed a committee of village officials and landlords to scrutinize the proposal to see if it can be tweaked to accommodate both sides.
However, it’s been clear from committee discussions that reaching compromise will be challenging. Trustee Don Perille, chairman of the committee, said as much, but he also said there will be some program moving forward so it’s in the committee’s best interests to work together.
4. Skokie Theater sold, saved
Gorilla Tango Theatre, the new owner of the Skokie Theatre in the village’s downtown, opened its doors in spring, expanding on the success of its Bucktown location.
Owner Dan Abbate said that he wanted the Skokie venue as home to children’s and family programming and for screenings of feature-length films that Gorilla Tango will produce, a new venture for the company.
Abbate was a theater major during his first semester in college, but he disliked “academic theater ” so he changed his major to philosophy. That’s not surprising to anyone who knows his lively Bucktown theater, which features playful and improvisational shows ranging from a twist on traditional burlesque to popular culture parodies.
The Skokie Theatre had been dark since the end of 2011, a victim of the harsh economy.
An historic piece of downtown, the theater at 7924 Lincoln Ave. first opened in 1912, the first Skokie building to have air conditioning and a venue for the making of silent movies. In 2004, a non-profit organization that changed its name to the Skokie Theatre Music Foundation bought the theater.
The Foundation received $100,000 from the village for refurbishing before pouring $1.5 million into the deteriorating facility.
By the time the renovation was complete, the theater had been transformed into an intimate state-of-the-art entertainment venue seating 140 patrons. But like many theater and arts venues of its kind, the Skokie Theatre struggled to make a go of it the last few years. The Gorilla Tango Theatre is one of the few such venues that thrived.
For village leaders who had been working hard to revitalize downtown, the arrival of Gorilla Tango was welcome news. The village did not financially subsidize the theater company in any way, but it played a role in steering Abbate to a local bank and helping to navigate through the process.
5. Big development year for Skokie
From north to south then, there was key economic development news in 2012 in Skokie.
Westfield Old Orchard changed its aesthetic theme, opened new stores and added amenities; three major retail projects on Dempster Street were completed – Walgreens, Oberweis Dairy and the reopening of Kaufman’s Deli; a few new stores in downtown Skokie opened and the Village Board signed off on a major downtown overhaul; and a new shopping center anchored by a prototype Walmart was approved for the east end of Touhy Avenue.
There were still key vacancies in the village and some businesses closed their doors. There has been no announcement about a new retailer for the shuttered Desiree restaurant in the heart of downtown Skokie. The old Barnum and Bagel restaurant on Dempster remains an empty building.
Village officials believe the economy will grow stronger. The streets and sidewalks of downtown Skokie will be under construction for much of next year as part of a game plan for revitalization, officials say. If the economy can recover more in 2013, the village by the end of the year will have a revamped downtown with its new train station and retailers in a better position to want to come there.
In other words, the biggest economic development news for Skokie may occur in the next few years.