High noon for Downtown. Can trustees pull trigger?

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DAN HALEY

There are consequences to stumbling about for years without a plan. Worse consequences when, during that extended planless period, you also take decisive, if purposeless, actions.

That's what the village of Oak Park has been doing over the past many years as it operated with no plan for Downtown Oak Park but with an endless piggy bank of TIF dollars allowing it to accumulate properties along Lake Street and Westgate with the same abandon with which most of us play Monopoly.

And to the same result. A bunch of buildings on odd properties with your sister's hotel crammed in next door on Park Place.

So now having worked without a plan, having actively not solicited input from a public which demands to help pick color swatches for the new library, the village government has put its downtown into limbo. There's already a critical parking shortage. Some sort of ill-conceived back-channel effort is underway to try to void a deal on Whiteco. And an ambitious, if far too delayed, attempt at a comprehensive downtown plan has been rendered obsolete before the four-color copies had dried.

That's the situation this first week of October. A jury-rigged attempt to gather public input was slapped together on an impossibly short timeline.

And now, the moment for this sincere crew to make its recommendation is nigh. What do they have to choose from? Several vaguely conceived efforts aimed at satisfying some elements of perceived public demands for historic preservation of older buildings. And, then there's the Focus/Taxman plan, hatched completely formed, presented with elegant drawings, a bow to preservation and a one-stop shopping option that is both alluring and repelling.

The Focus/Taxman plan would redevelop every square foot of unbuilt land in and near downtown, would take down seven buildings to make more unbuilt land and would construct a mixed-use utopia of condos, retail, office space, parking and green space (including, perhaps as a sop to Trustee Geoff Baker, trendy "green roofs").

This is a thoughtful plan, a plan that looks like professional developers have been contemplating and tinkering with it for five years, which is what Taxman Corporation has been doing. From the builders of the River Forest Town Square and the Shops of Downtown, now comes The Streets of Downtown Oak Park. They cunningly subtitle it "the beginning of a process..." in a nod to Oak Park's passion for dithering. Reality, though, says Tim Hague, the president of Taxman Corporation, is that this broad proposal is on the table for only a short while. Hague, who says fairly that he works for a tough boss in Sy Taxman, will tell the Oak Park village board that they have a period of a few weeks to negotiate seriously and come to a conclusion on this plan. After that, he says, Focus/Taxman will ask for the $5 million the village agreed to pay them for the Colt building, offer to sell the village the other properties it owns for the price it paid, and then exit Oak Park. A gigantic bluff? I'm not convinced it is. As Hague said last week, there are a lot of development opportunities in Chicagoland. Having spent five years trying to make a deal in Downtown Oak Park, Hague said, is long enough.

This doesn't mean the village board can't get tough with Focus/Taxman and demand that a couple of buildings on the east end of Lake Street be preserved, that a couple of floors get lopped off the residential projects on Lake and North Boulevard. There are some victories to be won here.

And what Focus/Taxman offers right now is considerable. They are legitimate developers with expertise in both retail and residential. They have proven they can perform mixed-use at Lake and Euclid. They own the Gap/Old Navy sites which, now or later, are going to beg for more intense development. They have good ties to local, regional and national retailers. They see opportunity in peripheral sites the village overpaid for and has been unable to develop at Harlem and South Boulevard.

Lose Focus/Taxman because the moment isn't right, there hasn't been enough input, whatever other bogus, ego-ridden excuses a board can muster and Oak Park's downtown will enter a strange twilight of businesses strangled without parking, property owners uncertain of the future, and ever more strident demands for input into purposeless process.

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