PARK FOREST COMMERCIAL CENTER
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 on October 28, 1946. Its first residents moved in in August 1948. The burgeoning suburb  was incorporated, as the Village of Park Forest, on February 1, 1949.

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

Designed by Richard M. Bennett of the Loebl, Schlossman & Bennett firm, the open-air COMMERCIAL CENTER 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. A (10,000 square foot) Jewel supermarket was inaugurated March 9, 1950. The H. & E. Balaban Corporation Holiday Theatre showed its first feature on October 28, 1950. On November 23, 1951, a (23,000 square foot) S.S. Kresge 5 & 10 welcomed its first shoppers.

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 37-foot-high Clock Tower as its focal point.

Promotional literature at the time described the COMMERCIAL CENTER 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 2-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 on March 28, 1955. A 3-level (230,000 square foot) Sears opened, as the center's third anchor, on August 8, 1963. By this time, the complex was known as PARK FOREST PLAZA. It covered approximately 700,000 leasable square feet.

The PLAZA was the preeminent South Side shopping center for several years. This changed in 1966, with the new RIVER OAKS CENTER {9.9 miles northeast, in Calumet City}. Additional competition came from LINCOLN MALL (1973) {2.7 miles northwest, in Matteson} and ORLAND SQUARE MALL (1976) {12.5 miles northwest, in Orland Park}. PARK FOREST PLAZA was soon in decline. Its Goldblatt's store was shuttered in early 1981. 

The first plan to reinvigorate the struggling shopping facility 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 center court.

The CENTRE OF PARK FOREST was officially dedicated August 29, 1987. Unfortunately, the renovation 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 struggling shopping complex in December 1995 and paid its delinquent back taxes. A new name, DOWNTOWN PARK FOREST, was bestowed. Chicago's Lakota Group was hired to conduct another revitalization. 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. The redevelopment project included creating a "village green" entertainment area and renovating the old Bramson's store 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 reconfigured 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.

DOWNTOWN PARK FOREST now encompassed around 312,000 square feet. Spaces were leased to 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. The former regional-class shopping hub had been reinvented as a 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:

The Chicago Tribune
The Chicago Heights Star
The Park Forest Star
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
"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