PARK FOREST PLAZA
Forest and Lakewood Boulevards
Village of Park Forest, Illinois

As Long Island, New York's Levittown development was being built, a similar, post-war planned community was coming into its own on 2,400 acres south of Chicago.

The Park Forest project had been formally announced October 28, 1946. Its first residents moved in in August 1948. The burgeoning suburb  was incorporated, as the Village of Park Forest, February 1, 1949.

Developed by Philip Klutznick, Nathan Manilow and Carroll F. Sweet (under the auspices of their American Community Builders company), Park Forest would feature a large, courtyard-type shopping center as its de facto downtown.

PARK FOREST PLAZA, designed by Richard M. Bennett of the Loebl, Schlossman & Bennett firm, occupied 54 acres, located 36 miles southwest of The Loop. The complex consisted of a main retail level with basements beneath all buildings.

The first operational store, Park Forest Liquors, opened December 15, 1949. By early 1950, the liquor store had been joined by an S.S. Kresge 5 & 10 and Jewel supermarket. The H. & E. Balaban Corporation Holiday Theatre showed its first feature October 28, 1950.

The shopping center, a harbinger of things to come in post-war America, received a great deal of media attention in its early days. Its retail buildings were situated around a wide, landscaped courtyard, with a distinctive clock tower as its focal point.

Promotional literature at the time described the PLAZA in the following manner; "All shops surround a park area and are connected by permanent canopies for the protection of shoppers against the elements in every season. (There are) big super-marts, smart gift shops, a modern drug store...and spacious free parking area."

Anchor department stores were eventually added. A 1-level (62,500 square foot) Goldblatt Brothers opened October 7, 1953. This was followed by a 3-level (116,000 square foot) Marshall Field's, dedicated March 28, 1955. A 3-level (230,000 square foot) Sears opened, as the center's third anchor, August 8, 1963.

PARK FOREST PLAZA served as the preeminent south side shopping center until 1966, when RIVER OAKS CENTER {9.9 miles northeast, in Calumet City} was dedicated. Additional commercial competition came from LINCOLN MALL {2.7 miles northwest, in Matteson} in 1973. The completion of ORLAND SQUARE MALL (1976) {12.5 miles northwest, in Orland Park} brought an additional retail rival.

With all of the south side mall competition, the "PLAZA" was soon in decline. Its Goldblatt's store was shuttered in early 1981. The first plan to reinvigorate the struggling shopopolis was proposed in 1985.

Conducted by Cordish, Embry & Associates of Baltimore, the 20 million dollar face lift got underway in the summer of 1986. The center's iconic Clock Tower was demolished. New facades and walkways were installed and a pond and waterfall feature set up in the mall's central court.

A renewed retail center, now known as CENTRE OF PARK FOREST, was officially dedicated August 29, 1987. Unfortunately, the revitalization was unsuccessful. Another reinvention proposal was considered in 1993, but never initiated. In 1994, Sears shuttered their Park Forest Store. Marshall Field's went dark March 29, 1997.

The Village Of Park Forest had purchased the shopping complex in December 1995 and paid its delinquent back taxes. A new name, PARK FOREST DOWNTOWN, was bestowed. The Lakota Group, of Chicago, were enlisted to formulate a revitilization. Their master plan was approved by The Village in 1997.

Over 364,000 square feet of vacant store space was demolished. Sections of the vast parking area were converted to green space and a Main Street thoroughfare cut through the center of the mall. The redevelopment project included creating a "village green" entertainment area and renovating the old Bramson's location into a Village Hall.

New stores and services were signed. A freestanding (15,000 square foot) Walgreen Drug and (17,500 square foot) Osco Drug were built. Moreover, an abandoned, 1960s-vintage, Jewel-Osco store was remade as a (64,000 square foot) Sterk's Super Foods market.

Victory Centre was constructed on the old Sears spot. This senior citizen complex consisted of two residential buildings; one being a 79-unit assisted living facility, with the other housing 95 independent living apartments.

Existing retail space in PARK FOREST DOWNTOWN was leased to tenants such as Smooth Cuts Barber Shop, Miss Monica's Dance Studio, Hero's Hoagies & Ice Cream and the Capiche Jazz Club. Most work was complete by early 2001. A 700,000 square foot, regional-class shopping center had been reinvisaged as a 312,000 square foot, community-class venue.

Marshall Field's PARK FOREST PLAZA building languished for several years, while plans for its reinvention came and went. It was finally demolished in November 2010.

Since opening in October 1950, the movie house at PARK FOREST DOWNTOWN operated under six different names and had been renovated several times. Last known as the Matanky Realty Group Holiday Star Theatre, it was permanently shuttered in September 2013.

Sources:

Park Forest Historical Society / Jane Nicoll Archivist
Park Forest Public Library
preservenet.cornell.edu/publications/Longstreth Branch Store.doc
"Timeline of the Park Forest Movie Theater" / Jane Nicoll / September 2010
www.cinematreasures.org
"America's Original G.I. Town" / Gregory C. Randall
www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org
The Chicago Tribune
"Village of Park Forest, Illinois Downtown Master Plan Update" / The Lakota Group / November 2002
"Park Forest, Illinois: Building A Legacy, Creating A New Downtown" / Urban Land Institute, Chicago / October 2003
www.villageofparkforest.net