Celebrate 60 Years
By Larry Atseff
Oakbrook Center is recognized as one of the most prestigious and most successful shopping centers in America, and the world. It deserves the ranking on both counts. It has a long list of the finest retailers and restaurants as you will find anywhere, and a growing list of entertainment venues. To make the point, go to page 22 and see the total list, by categories, and to page 23 to see the handy locater map. You can also go to oakbrookcenter.com for more information. Oakbrook Center offers a beautiful setting for shopping, dining, or relaxed enjoyment. When the chairman of Gucci visited the shopping center from Italy last year, he was very impressed, according to Gucci’s Oak Brook staff. Residents of Oak Brook and many nearby towns enjoy the experience as do business and leisure travelers staying at Oak Brook’s seven stellar hotels. This year, Oakbrook Center celebrates 60 years and is more vibrant than ever.
Naturally, the stores, restaurants, and venues deserve a lot of credit. But, so does Brookfield Properties, owners of the property, and their operations staff. We’ll get to the operations staff at the end of this anniversary story, but first a little history. Oakbrook Center did not rise out of a cornfield overnight. Hardly. Here is the story of the valuable land itself, how people fought over that land, how the builders of the shopping center had to overcome a serious, unexpected, little-known difficulty in early construction, and how Oakbrook Center has evolved with the times. Before there was Oakbrook Center, of course, there was Paul Butler leading the way with his vision for the village of Oak Brook itself. As a private plane pilot, when Paul Butler often flew back to his Salt Creek home in the early 1920s, he saw from the air how pristine the land was and envisioned its potential for land development. He recognized it was also ideally located, relatively close to Chicago, roadways, and Midway airport. Thinking ahead, he saw possibilities for keeping the woodlands and shifting farmland to residential and light commercial business use. As Butler was developing the area, leaders at Marshall Field’s and Sears in the 1950s were simultaneously casting an eye to the suburbs because they saw a growing number of their customers moving out from Chicago.
These retailers naturally wanted to follow their customers. As it turns out, Marshall Field had a development partner in Phillip Klutznick and his American Community Builders, who had already developed Old Orchard with them. In 1955, Marshall Field purchased a vacant parcel of 150 acres of farmland at Route 83 and 22nd Street, north to 16th Street and east to Spring Road. The original village became incorporated in 1958 as one square mile and 103 residents. Because the proposed shopping center was not contiguous to the Village, it was not included in the Butler petition for the land. So Paul Butler, and his General Manager Ted Mohlman, convinced several residents of Utopia (subsequently renamed Oakbrook Terrace) to disconnect themselves and were annexed into Oak Brook. They brought with them the vacant land on which the shopping center would be built Unbeknownst to everyone, however, there was another daunting hurdle during early construction in 1960 of the shopping center itself. According to construction engineer Don Baar, who was on the scene, here is what happened, “I worked on construction of the Central Heating and Cooling Plant (CHACP) that provided heating and cooling for entire development. The CHACP was to be located some thirty feet below the ground level stores.” “Excavations were underway in preparation for construction of the footings and foundation structures of the CHACP. As excavations advanced to approximately twenty feet in depth, a static water table was encountered.
As the excavations progressed deeper, numerous active springs were encountered. (A spring is the result of an aquifer being filled to the point that the water overflows onto the land surface. They range in size from intermittent seeps, to millions of gallons daily. We encountered the millions of gallons per day variety.)” “Ultimately, the CHACP foundations were successfully completed at tremendous additional expense and loss of time. In spite of the delays caused by the massive spring encounter, OBC was completed in one year, ahead of the original three year schedule.” “With fifty years of major project construction experience, I never again encountered such a large spring-fed water table. Realizing man cannot change the course of Mother Nature, I often wonder how and where the spring under CHACP is flowing today.” Once that water problem was overcome, construction of Oakbrook Center proceeded and the center opened to great fanfare. Over 15,000 vehicles filled the lots on opening day, in March 1962. In addition to Marshall Field’s and Sears, there was also a Bonwit Teller and a Jewel Tea store.
Since then, Oakbrook Center has gone through several modifications to add more retail outlets and has become more and more popular. (see picture of 1980 renovation which added more stores.) Today, as the current map and store list on the next 2 pages indicate, there are over 170+ stores, dining places, services and entertainment venues for people to enjoy. Oakbrook Center has been owned and managed by Brookfield Properties since 2018. On-premise senior manager Tim Geiges, and his team of construction/maintenance workers, social media experts and security force work constantly with the “tenants” to keep the center an enjoyable experience. He has been in his role since 2018. In just that short time, he has seen a fair amount of change. In talking with our reporter Chuck Fieldman recently, here is what he shared about what it is like to manage such an attractive destination. “The village of Oak Brook has allowed the property to recreate itself over and over.” “I am proud to be part of a company, in Brookfield Properties, that continues to invest allowing Oakbrook to continue to evolve in an ever-changing reatail world.”
Recently the property has added Puttshack, a tech-infused, mini golf/restaurant, and LifeTime Fitness. Next spring, the former Clubhouse will become home to a newly re-located 20,000 square foot C.D. Peacock jewelry store, complete with restaurant. Geiges is fully aware of the competition from Amazon for brick-and-mortar locations. He also acknowledges the need for increased security lately and is working closely with the Village to employ a robust license plate reader system to track suspect vehicles that may be trying to enter the area. As Village President Gopal Lalmalani adds, “The center is the brand of Oak Brook. People come to Oak Brook, in part because of it. We don’t have a downtown or a train station, and I think our downtown is really the shopping center. They do many things to make the place more attractive.” Geiges is also quick to point out the financial benefit to the community.
Taxes from Oakbrook Center businesses account for a substantial percentage of the village’s total annual income, according to Oak Brook’s Finance Department. In addition to pleasant shopping and dining experiences, Geiges points to special events to keep visitors coming back. Last year’s Sistine Chapel exhibit was very well received. Christkindlmarket has also appeared at the mall. Other events are constantly being planned. Retailers like to engage with the community, as well. For example, recently at Gucci’s new stand-alone location the Hinsdale Chapter, Infant Welfare Society, held a very successful fundraiser. “During the summer, every Wednesday we offer free family movies on the big screen in front of our Lawn area. We have brought back our Father’s Day Classic Car Show. We are now dog friendly.” All in all, the future for Oakbrook Center continues to look bright. As Tim says, “Free parking and less sales tax are an attraction. It takes just once to come out and see what we have to offer our guests and they want to return.”
*Photos provided by the city of Oak Brook