Don't let Downtown consume another board

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DAN HALEY

There was talk last Thursday evening as the Oak Park village board debated the future of Downtown Oak Park till 1:30 a.m. about the weight of making decisions worthy of generations to come.

I suppose when you are talking about knocking down buildings and inventing new streets and spending millions of dollars that it might give a newly elected board pause. However, this is no moment to pause. It is about five years past time to act decisively in reshaping our downtown. The board made some progress in agreeing to re-open Marion Street, to attempt to convert Westgate to retail. But, only when a comprehensive plan for Downtown is settled can this new board move on to dealing with issues and opportunities facing the rest of oft-ignored Oak Park.

Around town there is grumbling in some quarters about this board, this New Leadership Party board. That grumbling, when it comes from anyone associated with a past board, ought to stop right now. Those who had any hand in creating the situation this board inherited Downtown have no basis for complaint. You've done your damage.

There are people questioning motives of this new board, people who already are ready to make this personal.

Let's not do that. Let's give the benefit of the doubt to duly elected officials who are working hard to sort out complex issues.

That doesn't mean, of course, that they wouldn't welcome some advice. So here goes.

As this board finally headed for home last week it was leaning toward a faulty decision, along with some genuine concensus.But the faulty decision on the Colt Building has the capacity to spiral into a flurry of failings and delays. Three solid votes seem to exist for broadly following the outline presented by the recent citizen steering committee?#34;President David Pope and Trustees Greg Marcy and Ray Johnson. Trustees Bob Milstein and Geoff Baker seem solid in their conclusion that the core of the steering committee plan?#34;tear down the Colt and build a new north-south street?#34;is wrong-headed. And, finally, Trustees Martha Brock and Elizabeth Brady are swing votes seen as leaning against the plan.

The Colt is at the heart of the issue. It is a vintage Art Deco retail and office building fronting on both Lake Street and Westgate. Everything intersects at the Colt?#34;a historic preservation debate, placement of a new north-south street and its accompanying opportunity for new stores, the cross-wired ownership between the Focus-Taxman Corporation and the village government.

For forward movement to occur Downtown, the Colt has to come down. That's the conclusion of the steering committee, the potential developers, even of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, which recognizes that a trade-off is necessary that gives up the Colt in favor of restoring the Tudor structures along Westgate. The finance and preservation experts hired by the village to analyze the Colt have concluded that saving the Colt would be very expensive and result in a building that is only marginally economical. That would leave the village with ownership of a gigantic white elephant in the direct center of Downtown and with depleted balances in the TIF fund to accomplish other goals.

The broader argument. If this board chooses, in any notable way, to start afresh in Downtown?#34;new plan, new processes?#34;it will give over the balance of its four-year term to the same debate and distractions which have bedeviled and undercut the past two village boards. There will be no room on the radar for all the other issues that got this board elected. That would be an awful mistake.

It may be counterintuitive because any decision on Downtown is a big one, but I'd advise this board, specifically Trustees Brock and Brady, to not let Downtown consume their efforts. A reasonable plan is on the table, one that rose up from a commendable citizen process. Amend it, improve it but don't toss it. Don't start over. Get Downtown done and allow yourselves the opportunity to deal with all the other issues your fellow citizens want addressed.

Downtown has swallowed enough years and enough village boards.

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