LA GRANGE – About eight months after they married, David McCarty and his wife, Dorothy, moved into a worn house on Madison Street.
The house was about 50 years old, not old enough to be considered historic.
“Just old,” McCarty said.
The previous owners hadn’t done much, if any, work on the house, which contained cracked walls and broken doors. But its brick facade and wide porch appealed to the newlyweds, both architects.
“We were twenty-something and had more time than money, so we did a lot of the work ourselves,” McCarty said.
Thirty years later, the McCartys still live in the house, now just as charming inside as out. When they moved in, they didn’t expect to stay for all that long. But they quickly adopted the town that, like their home, would get a face-lift in the years to follow.
Six weeks after moving to La Grange, the village president at the time called David and Dorothy and told them he needed people to work on different village commissions. Not knowing anyone in town, they said yes.
Dorothy became a member of the Plan Commission, and David joined the now-defunct Architecture and Heritage Commission. David noticed the people on the commission always had something to say.
“At first, I was very skeptical,” he said. “ ‘Great, here’s another person who’s lived here 30 years who’s going to tell me what I should know about La Grange.’ And then I realized, ‘Yeah, I guess that is pretty neat. I guess I should know that.’ ”
Over the next three decades, McCarty, elected as a village trustee April 9, would serve on several village commissions and groups, using his architectural knowledge to transform downtown La Grange into one of the most popular in the Chicago area. McCarty played key roles in the development of the parking garage behind Village Hall (he advised that the entrance, initially planned for the site of the plaza fountain, be moved to Harris Avenue); rewriting the village’s zoning codes; defining and preserving downtown’s architectural identity through the Design Review Commission; and additions to downtown streets and sidewalks, such as new pavement patterns, lights, plants and signage, that made the area more cohesive.
“He’s a collaborative, critical thinker with years and years of successes both in architecture and in our village,” said Trustee Bill Holder, who was re-elected as part of a slate including McCarty, incumbent Trustee Mark Langan, new Village President Tom Livingston and new Village Clerk John Burns. McCarty replaces Michael Horvath on the board.
McCarty, 56, remembers the car dealers that dominated downtown La Grange before it became a destination. He went on business trips for the architectural firm he co-founded in 1985, Chicago Design Network, and discovered places that he envisioned as a model for La Grange. Two Colorado towns, Fort Collins and Boulder, caught his attention.
“They had this core of older buildings that they kept active and [for] completely different uses,” McCarty said. “It was a lot of restaurants and smaller specialty shops. They were able to fill up those downtowns, which were too big for the town itself. That was the same problem for La Grange. The downtown was much bigger than a town of 13,000 could normally support.”
Now, the revitalized downtown isn’t in need of big changes, but McCarty wants to see more jobs – maybe via a professional building for doctors, for example – that could supply the area’s restaurants with business during the day.
“I think if there’s one thing that would be nice to get back into that area, it would be more people that are there for jobs that can get out at lunchtime,” he said.
Some of McCarty’s other wishes for the village include re-developing the area of La Grange Road south of 47th Street.
“It’d be nice to have a little more of the La Grange identity down here so that as soon as you cross that line from Countryside into La Grange, you know it,” he said. “I bet most people can’t tell you where the south border of La Grange is on La Grange Road. Where is Countryside? Who knows. Is it the tire shop, is it the Dunkin’ Donuts, or is it the Arby’s?”
McCarty said the village could work with building owners as the businesses turn over to update the buildings’ facades, which “have a real ‘60s sort of feel to them.”
“And it’s surprising how quickly that stuff turns over,” he said. “People will say, ‘Well, that will never happen.’ I bet in five years, you would see a noticeable difference. And in 10 years, you would have more that’s been completed than that hasn’t been completed. I think it could happen pretty quickly.”
McCarty, whose three kids attended Lyons Township High School, also hopes to improve pedestrian access south of 47th Street, as well as improve bicycle and pedestrian access throughout the village. One way would be to connect bike routes with routes from surrounding towns, he said. He’d like to see the village work more with surrounding towns in general, potentially through service and equipment sharing and a single emergency dispatch.
He has a clear stance on the controversial plans for a potential overpass at 47th Street and East Avenue, an intersection the Illinois Department of Transportation is studying.
“The concept of that interchange has been on the books for 15 years,” he said. “The talk [has been about] a grade separation, and that’s just not the right solution for La Grange. It may be the right solution from a regional transportation standpoint. It may be the right solution for the trains. But it’s not the right solution for La Grange.”
McCarty favors a signal at the intersection, which is currently a four-way stop. He said he was glad that residents have organized through a Facebook group, the 47th Street/East Avenue Community Group, and that he hopes the group expands to address other issues along the street.
“I think we need to capture the energy of these people and get this focused on that,” McCarty said. “47Th street in general needs work. There are some things that should happen there. You can’t cross 47th street as a pedestrian. We need to fix that. And we can only fix it working with the state because it’s a state route. So I’d like to broaden that energy from just that intersection, make it a more substantial community group.”