By Dan Haley
Shrill is bad.
Pointless. Nonproductive. Hard on the ears and tough on legitimate discussion.
So the lady at the last village board meeting in Oak Park who spoke out of turn and lambasted the proposal for low-income housing at the Comcast building on Madison Street is officially declared, by me, as shrill. This proposal, like it or hate it, is not in any way similar to a CHA housing project.
We are too good a community to have a discussion about a controversial project, and this project on Madison is going to raise a ruckus, at such extremes.
How about we stipulate that any plan to build 51 units of housing in Oak Park for low-income people who aren't old and wrinkly is going to raise some concerns, particularly from people who live nearby? And let's also stipulate that people who spend their lives working for a group called the Interfaith Housing Development Corporation are probably pretty decent folks. And we'll extend that thumbs-up to the volunteer board members at the Oak Park Housing Authority, which is a co-applicant on this project.
Let's allow that the village board was following well-established procedure in sending this proposal to the Oak Park Plan Commission for hearings. And then let's dismiss the conspiracy theory that this proposal was held up purposely so that the plan commission hearing would fall in mid-December when everyone was distracted by sugarplums. Come on people! The village planner has already said the plan commission will likely have six separate meetings on this subject. There will be plenty of time for people to speak. The daffodils will be blooming and the Cubs will be losing before this one gets settled.
And that's fine. This is a challenging proposal in a difficult moment. We ought to take our time, study the issues, require additional factual information about the site, have the applicants pay for a traffic study, and let people speak, at length, for and against this idea.
The deliciously renamed citizen group, Oak Park Citizens for Inclusionary Housing, issued a summary of its position on the issue last week. Good PR move, and hopefully, a good substantive move, for the neighbors to be for something instead of just railing against something.
The two-page summary covers a lot of ground. This group has been working and they are, to their credit, making an effort to focus their opposition on issues and not mere fears. That said, I'd never write a sentence that puts the word "but" after "We believe in fair housing." And I was troubled by the line, the development "requires residents of all 51 units to be poor." Sure, it is low-income housing. But "poor" is a loaded word, and ought to be avoided.
There is a discussion to be had, though, about the environmental issues in converting a building that for decades served as a car dealership; there are legitimate questions about how much parking is necessary for tenants, staff and customers of the first-floor retail.
Given the village's mixed history in forcing retail into mixed-use projects in secondary locations—Ridgeland and South, South and Home—I wonder if retail is viable here.
So let's have the debate. It is a worthy one. But only if we conduct ourselves worthily.