The DTOP plan only works if we use the entire plan

Opinion

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Ray Johnson, One view

I want to personally thank the many, many people who have written e-mails, letters to the editor or called in regards to the Downtown Oak Park (DTOP) Citizen Steering Committee plan. Certainly the volunteers on the steering committee and the many citizens who participated in the process also deserve our thanks.

No issue has so galvanized public support, nor created such a diverse level of support during my tenure as the DTOP citizen plan. By a 20-1 margin, citizens from a broad cross-section of the village (including residents of River Forest) have weighed in with calls of support for the entire citizen plan. With this level of support, one can conclude that the people of Oak Park and surrounding communities have made it clear they want to proceed with the DTOP revitalization plan along the lines of what the citizen steering committee recommended.

In addition, members of various business districts, business associations, independent merchants and the real estate community have joined to partner with citizens in moving this plan forward. It pains me to hear some disregard this coalition as simply a group of "special interests," when in fact we all share a common goal and have a "vested interest" in a strong and healthy downtown Oak Park.

To diminish public discourse by simply saying, "there should have been more letters written" or that those who have written somehow have a "special interest," relegates the work of everyone, no matter what their position, as somehow not valued. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The citizen plan for DTOP was vetted, analyzed, reviewed and recommended with sound judgment, substantial citizen input, outside expert analysis in both historic preservation and market opportunities, and is now receiving widespread community support.

The open and participatory manner in which the citizen plan enhanced the recently approved Greater Downtown Master Plan (created with citizen input by the award-winning firm of Crandall Arambula) is a cohesive and functional blueprint which will move us forward.

There is no disputing that a strong downtown will enhance all of our business districts. There is also no disputing the fact that we have yet to capitalize on our market strength and core competencies as a community in relation to our strong demographic market base.

The plan enhances DTOP on so many levels?#34;from creating eight new corners of retail (four corners at Lake/"New Street" and an additional four corners at Westgate/"New Street"), a viable and visible retail/pedestrian/vehicular corridor linking the Holley Court Garage with a new parking facility along North Boulevard all via the north/south "New Street," synergy between the Metra/CTA/Pace transportation hub and DTOP, new residential units in the transit overlay district, and new and exciting retail throughout the Lake/Marion/Westgate/North Blvd. business district.

All of the above is accomplished by strengthening the current retail environment on Marion Street via a pedestrian-friendly street design while enhancing the truly historic buildings in the Westgate/Marion district by restoring those streets to their historic uses for pedestrian/vehicular movement, retail, restaurants and offices all within a pedestrian-friendly environment.

There are some who offer up weak compromises or parse the plan to specific elements they desire. The beauty of this plan is the cohesive, comprehensive and holistic manner in which it was created. One cannot simply open Marion Street with no other new north/south street and keep Marion Street pedestrian-friendly. Likewise, building a 500- to 600-car parking facility which includes no direct access off of Lake Street is a very costly and inefficient design which does little to meet the guiding principles of the citizen steering committee plan or the Greater Downtown Master Plan.

So, you have to ask yourself, what is holding us back? Why can't we seize the moment and move forward? For some, the need for additional analysis is necessary. I certainly respect that need but do want to boil down the numbers in an easy-to-digest format.

Saving the Colt building (on Lake Street, just east of Pier One) is prohibitively costly. All analysts stated that a reconstructed Colt building is a losing proposition for the village in both real dollars and lost opportunity. We cannot effectively and efficiently move forward in a cost-effective manner if we continue to require the Colt building to be reconstructed. Estimates indicate nearly $6 million in costs to reconstruct the building, which will create little if any new property or sales tax increment after the taxpayer subsidy.

One analyst predicts it will take 52 years for the village to recoup the reconstruction costs on the Colt building. That analysis certainly puts the debate regarding Whiteco to bed, since for a comparison the village recoups the public investment on the Harlem/Ontario project in just 8-10 years.

With continued community support, we can take the steps necessary to ensure long-term progressive economic growth. Likewise, the village has and will continue to work in partnership with our business districts and business owners by continuing to focus on capital improvement projects, enhanced retail rehab grant programs, distinct business district character plans with achievable implementation guidelines, and strong marketing efforts to move us forward.

As always, don't hesitate to contact me anytime at 358-5788 or rjohnson@oak-park.us. I look forward to continued dialogue in the coming months.

Ray Johnson is an Oak Park village trustee.

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