By Cathy Yen
Monday, May 20 marked the first night of business for Oak Park's newly constituted Village Board. With Village President Anan Abu-Taleb now at the helm and Trustee Peter Barber new to the group, the first "regular meeting" of this session signified more than business as usual.
At the outset, public comments set a very "Oak Park" tone, with noteworthy contributions from a resident concerned about tree pruning and a number of residents advocating Village-wide support of the "Meatless Mondays" movement. I liked the OPRF High School student who called for a "Meatless Mondays" resolution which she hoped would hold sway with separate taxing body District 200. Her comments nicely spoke to popular Oak Park themes of sustainability and inter-governmental cooperation.
Things got interesting when Trustee Salzman took the intergovernmental cooperation theme and ran with it. He suggested asking the CFOs of the various taxing bodies to meet more regularly with the express mission of generating ways to alleviate the tax burden. I didn't quite follow the ensuing conversation which referenced meeting protocols and the Intergovernmental Committee. Apparently, "iGov" already meets to explore areas for collaboration. I would like to learn more about this. Although iGov public meeting agendas are on the Village's website, minutes haven't been posted since last July – so I am not exactly sure what they do, what they talk about or how (if?) businesses can tee up topics.
The rest of the agenda was stacked with business community issues, albeit coincidentally. The Fitzsimmons awards recognized contributions to Public Health. The Johnson Lunchroom Awards recognized Oak Park restaurants with outstanding health inspection grades. The Health Department and the Board celebrated a number of fine local establishments. (Shout out to award recipients and Chamber members Tracy Vegeler of Oak Park Place Apartments, Vanguard West Suburban Medical Center, Aripo's Venezuelan Arepa House, and Eyrie Restaurant.)
The meat of the evening concerned potential changes to the Zoning Ordinance as it relates to Transit-Related Retail Overlay Districts and Perimeter Overlay District. Uses, standards, variance criteria and approval authority. It is complicated and confusing to a newcomer like myself – which was essentially the testimony I gave at the joint Plan Commission / Zoning Board of Appeals meeting held a few weeks ago. On the plus side, the commissioners and the Board welcome the business community's input in creating an easy-to-understand road map for new businesses looking to locate in Oak Park. (Email me for more info on this subject.)
The good news: I witnessed a long but balanced conversation on how best to ensure "neighborhood character" but encourage business investment. The Board recognized that some in the business community raised the issue "use" in the first place (determining what kind of business is allowed to operate in first floor retail space in specified business areas). Yet, the answer should not be to create a labyrinthine ordinance with onerous provisions. We businesses represent a complicated and diverse group. Yet we uniformly support clarity, equity, predictability and ease of use. I appreciated hearing that the Board seems to share those values. (As does Staff, by the way, from what I can tell from my interactions thus far.)
President Abu-Taleb played the part of a thoughtful facilitator. A few bumps in format – but he'll get used to the protocol for calling for motions and seconds and discussion and votes soon enough. He expressed his opinions quietly and sparingly and often used the phrase "we need to be mindful of…" As in, be mindful of businesses – both landlords and prospective tenants when considering policy. A good start.
Finally, kudos to Trustee Barber for continually requesting best practices and comparisons to other communities. Neither investment nor consumerism is bound by our Harlem, Austin, North and Roosevelt borders. Oak Park may very well be a nice place to live, work, eat and shop. But we applaud recognizing that other communities are clamoring for market share. The more competitive information we have, the better informed we'll be as we make policy and craft ordinances designed to enhance our thriving community. A very business-minded approach, which we applaud.