By Dan Haley
It is not about the outcome — another couple of entrepreneurs running screaming from Oak Park, having been teased and tortured. Sure, that is bad. And, yes, it reinforces the partly accurate perception that the village isn't welcoming to business. Now traditionally, business people come to that angry conclusion having dealt with code enforcement staff or zoning officers. Actually having the village board do the deed, having the entrepreneurs burst into tears at a televised public meeting after a year of fruitless work, well, that's one for the books. Even in Oak Park.
So while I can argue in favor of the votes of the four trustees who blocked the Oak Leaf Academy day care from moving into a notable retail space on the 200 block of South Marion Street, I can also support the reasoning of Trustees Salzman and Tucker who supported the day care.
Why can I argue both sides? Because over the course of 18 months this village board has made a startling and irrational series of decisions regarding this commercial strip that led directly to the discomforting drama played out in the council chambers a week ago.
So my frustration is the process, the inability of this village board — in this instance but not only in this instance — to move in a linear fashion through a series of related decisions.
Going back to the start, you had what is fundamentally Village President David Pope's vision of economic development, which takes the form of high-end streetscaping projects. On the 100 block of North Marion Street, the village had removed an obsolete and ugly pedestrian mall, the remaining remnant of the Oak Park Mall, which saw all of Marion Street and Lake Street closed to traffic and gradually losing its businesses. Using TIF funds, the village went all in on the new Marion Street and it was spectacular. The board took the necessary next step and declared that block as retail-only. No offices. No services. Just retail and dining.
Next, Pope and village staff wanted to bring the same high-end materials and design to streetscapes on the 100 and 200 blocks of South Marion and the two blocks of Oak Park Avenue south of Lake Street. But opposition began to mount among some businesses along Oak Park Avenue and after an election, support on the village board for such investments became less sure.
So in a Hail Mary pass one night at the village board when it seemed like support for both projects was slipping away, David Pope cajoled and prodded and managed to save the South Marion Street project. And it was built. And it was lovely. But there was no longer adequate trustee support for imposing the same retail-only designation on South Marion as had been done to the north.
So a $5 million showplace of brick and lanterns — yes, and new sewers — was in place waiting for the arrival of, what, daycare centers? It simply made no sense to spend that money — the final investment before the TIF was shuttered as a result of a contentious lawsuit with the high school — without the expectation of retail. But no retail overlay district was created. That led to the Oak Park Plan Commission rightly granting the daycare a special-use permit. It led to the entrepreneurs thinking they'd secured a great location. And ultimately last Monday it led the village board into contortions as its members tried to justify what were bad choices on both sides.
Allow a daycare on a showplace street the taxpayers have just lavished scarce funds on? Or block a use that was clearly allowed by the zoning this board approved?
We have to do better than this. Or else we'll all be running from the village in tears.