I'm writing in response to my colleague Elizabeth Brady's recent editorial titled, "First get real about the numbers, then start developing" [Viewpoints, Jan. 25]. Along with my colleague, Ray Johnson, I was a member of the steering committee that crafted the strategic development plan for the Downtown Oak Park Sub-Area, alternately known as the superblock or Marion-Westgate. While I support the plan, I also understand why some of my colleagues have taken exception to some of its recommendations.
Trustee Brady portrays the disagreement as between "McRetail-McCondo development and an historically sensitive approach to creating a unique sense of place." Having witnessed the steering committee's willingness to consider ideas from all quarters and the careful deliberations that followed, I find that characterization an over-simplification of a plan that carefully blends historic preservation and redevelopment.
Some redevelopment is recommended, and Trustee Brady is correct when citing a planned 289 new residential units, as articulated in a financial analysis of the plan, presented to the board by Busse Consulting, Inc. But Trustee Brady's "guestimate" of 130 residential units above the North Boulevard garage is pure speculation. Discussion did occur among members of the steering committee regarding potential residential development above the garage, but no such recommendations made it to the final report. It should also be noted that 162 of the 289 new units would result from the redevelopment of the Shops of Downtown into a mixed-used development, which she supports in her editorial.
Trustee Brady characterizes the Colt building as "the lightning rod for those who favor dense development." Once again, it's not that simple. If the Colt building is not redeveloped, the reduction in density is a mere 28 units, according to the Busse analysis. And the village would presumably save the $2 million cost to build New Street. But do those perceived benefits outweigh the costs to save and restore the Colt building? At minimum, the village would almost certainly have to subsidize some portion of the $5-6 million restoration, to say nothing of the $5 million cost to buy back the building from Taxman Corp. if ongoing negotiations are unsuccessful.
And after all the effort, we deliver a restored Colt building to an uncertain economic future, by virtue of its own unique atrium design. Most of the first-floor retail space would face the atrium interior, with only the north and south ends facing roadways (Lake and Westgate streets, respectively)?#34;a risky proposition for any retailer "caught inside." And in consultant studies, the restored basement and 2nd floor have been primarily designated as office space, which is already in abundance downtown. We've seen some analyses of residential alternatives, but the numbers aren't much more compelling.
Trustee Brady goes on to say, "If we subsidized this plan to the same levels that we subsidized Whiteco and the Shops of Downtown Oak Park, it will cost us $18 million." Yet she provides no explanation of how this number was calculated, or even justification as to why we would want or need to subsidize the plan to such a degree. If Trustee Brady is interested in "getting real" on the numbers, then let's make sure we're discussing real numbers.
Trustee Brady concludes her editorial by saying, "The Marion-Westgate solution should include: building the garage, creating incentives for restoration and adaptive reuse of historical buildings, putting village-owned properties in the area out for RFP, revamping Marion and Westgate, attracting and retaining independent retail and commercial enterprises, and getting development moving where it belongs?#34;all over the village." While these are all fine ideas, they really don't represent a plan for the superblock. For example, putting properties out to RFP doesn't make much sense without a plan, unless you're prepared to let the marketplace dictate to us what they would like to build. Plus, while providing incentives for restoration/adaptive reuse makes good sense, it comes with its own price tag, which must be estimated before moving forward.
So if not this plan, then which plan? In my opinion, if board members reject some portion of the steering committee's plan, then they ought to articulate their own alternatives, not just a wish-list.
What we really need is a reasonable compromise to which all trustees can agree, so we can get moving. Some of my colleagues and I continue to work to that end. Progress has been slow but steady, and I'm hopeful we'll achieve our goal within the month. The retailers of downtown and the residents of Oak Park deserve more than stalemate.
Greg Marsey is an Oak Park village trustee.