It is unfortunate that a proper public debate concerning the future of the most vital part of Oak Park?#34;its downtown business district?#34;cannot be conducted with the kind of professional decorum one learns in Political Science 101.
We read in the editorial pages of Wednesday Journal every week the unrelenting vilification of past village boards of trustees, laying at their feet, particularly the last one, the reasons why the current board is unable to make intelligent, persuasive, reasoned decisions concerning the future of downtown Oak Park (although the master planner, many thought, presented that rather clearly after many citizens' meetings). The editor also sees fit to decree that the debate should now end, that the board should make a prompt decision, and that the villagers should simply live with that decision and move on to other issues affecting the village.
We further read in the Viewpoints section of both local newspapers one trustee's personalized attack on a number of villagers who have the nerve to question the procedures and decision-making ability of several of the current board members, most of whom belong to his particular party. His attempt to question the civic pedigree of people who take issue with the direction of village government and his positions on civic matters is most lamentable for a public servant who should value and promote free speech and citizen input.
But repetitive attempts to unilaterally shape an issue and to lambaste the citizenry offering comment do not make either ipso facto true.
Most of the business community in downtown Oak Park feel strongly that the most important issue facing the vitality of Oak Park is the future of the west end of Lake Street. Many of us have more than a passing interest in the success of real estate, businesses and community involvement in Oak Park which, of necessity, makes us major stakeholders in this area and thus a logical group to vigorously voice our opinions. My company's employment of more people in Oak Park than any other business other than the village requires that I voice my and my employees' concerns relating to parking, navigating around the area, shopping in diversified stores, and eating in decent restaurants. Likewise, our investment in local real estate makes it imperative that we promote an atmosphere conducive to leasing and managing so we can attract other businesses to downtown Oak Park, prompting in turn further reinvestment, while we shoulder high real estate taxes in lieu of Oak Park homeowners.
My take on the current morass in village government is that a group of its neophyte trustees simply believe that they have acquired a mandate to recreate the downtown Oak Park area into their own vision?#34;a minor rendition of the adage "to the victors belong the spoils." In doing so, the record is clear that veteran, professional village staff members' opinions are ignored, citizen groups appearing at board meetings are insulted, the findings of the master planners are overturned, and time and monies are expended in an attempt to overturn lawful contracts (Whiteco) which the village attorney has opined are valid. This is more than the citizenry of Oak Park bargained for.
There is no secret now to cure the ills of the downtown area?#34;simply walk or (attempt to) drive through it. The Marion mall needs to be opened up to traffic, Westgate should be expanded into Marion Street, diagonal parking is needed on Lake and Marion Streets, a new parking garage should be constructed on North Boulevard, a street needs to be created between Marion and Harlem linking Lake Street to North Boulevard, and incentives need to be offered developers (I am not one) to continue to choose Oak Park over other suburban areas to build here rather than elsewhere. TIF monies already collected are available to do such things.
Simply sticking one's head in the sand while repeatedly mouthing "Oak Park is unique and desirous to all," sadly, does not solve anything. The uniqueness of this village is not in old, decaying physical structures (other than Hemingway and Wright buildings) but in the intelligence of its citizens and their longstanding commitments to egalitarianism, fairness, diverse opinions and common decency. To continue to underlie the future of Oak Park in misplaced Tudor buildings on Westgate and the expenditures of millions of dollars to purchase and renovate an ugly (Colt) building on Lake Street defies understanding and, in the latter matter, invites judicial review concerning the fiduciary expenditures of taxpayers' monies, which may tie up this village in court for years. Progress and reasonable development should be our hallmarks, not stagnated nostalgia for days gone by.
Yes, we certainly do need to move on, but only after the village board re-evaluates its proper role in government, listens to the majority of its citizens and citizen groups, and exercises basic common sense and well justified decision-making.
Until that happens, voices of concern will hopefully continue to be heard.
Anthony R. Shaker
Shaker & Associates