Last week, along with over 100 others, I attended the Envision Oak Park kick-off event. This was my fourth time interacting with the Envision Oak Park process (or fifth if you include my on-line participation). It was a keypad voting session where we got to see what the previous focus groups had identified as issues. Then we voted on our top priorities among them. While keypad voting can be a little dull and certainly doesn't feel like real interaction, it was a good exercise.
I was most pleased to see that diversity was included as one of the 4 core values of the process. In the past, comprehensive plans were only about zoning, land use, codes, and other strict planning issues. Today, comprehensive plans look at quality of life as well. And, the quality of life in Oak Park is deeply rooted in our ability to promote a diverse, integrated, and inclusive community.
That said, I would really like to see elements of the comprehensive plan that address and prioritize activities and policies that will sustain and improve upon the progress we've made as a community.
I think we should prioritize community development infrastructure and business recruitment of retail and similar businesses in the smaller business districts. In my opinion, Downtown Oak Park, the Hemingway District, and Pleasant are extremely important to the community's tax base and appeal. But, I also think that these districts have a lot of comparative advantages already. It is very important to ensure that there are vital business districts throughout the community. With the new gymnastics center going up on Lake, I think momentum is building there for investment by others. Meanwhile, I would like to see increased attention on the Arts District, Chicago and Austin, and Southtown. These are vital districts for the surrounding neighborhoods and the right kinds of businesses (retail, restaurants, galleries, etc.) can make a big difference in the desirability to live near them. Growth in these districts could also go a long way to improving the walkability of Oak Park.
Of course, we can't forget about North Avenue and Roosevelt Road. But, I'm unsure about what could be done to improve either. It is particularly difficult for Roosevelt road since the other side of the street allows for incentives and assistance from a TIF district that is driving decisions for business location there.
Meanwhile, in DTOP, I think we should focus more on commercial office space that would improve job opportunities here, support local businesses through increased daytime traffic, and broaden the tax base. They would also be good uses for a transit-centered district like DTOP. Workers could reach their jobs without needing to drive. If we took advantage of Oak Park's cultural vibrancy as well, we should be able to draw businesses that hire "creative class" professionals.
Regarding transit, I would also like to see a Metra stop at Austin Boulevard. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people express an interest in an Austin Metra stop. It would definitely have high ridership and it would ensure transit equity in Oak Park. Meanwhile, it could spur a rebuilding of the Austin Green Line stop. That could improve a gateway to Oak Park.
And speaking of improving rail stops, the Blue Line stations could use a serious facelift. There should also be card vending machines at the alternate entrances for each station and the stations should be made accessible.
A Bus-Rapid-Transit route on North Avenue would be great. I can imagine a route that went east on North Avenue and then switched to Grand. We need better transit options in northern Oak Park. Since I don't expect a new rail line, BRT would be the next best option.
Meanwhile, I'd like to see some reinvestment within Village Hall in the Community Relations and Housing Programs departments. Both are vital to the community and both have the potential to be even stronger and more effective departments. They have important roles to play in ensuring integration, inclusion, and equity in the community.
Of course, this is just a small portion of all we could be doing with a document labeled "comprehensive plan." In fact, it's only a fraction of the ideas I would recommend. What would you add? I would love to hear you thoughts and ideas. The planning process for Envision Oak Park isn't over yet. There's still quite some time. Add your voice to the discussion here. And, don't forget to check out the Envision Oak Park website where you can learn more and take a community survey.