By Dan Haley
Galen Gockel, the former village trustee, former District 97 school board member, and all-around sage counsel, said it well on Saturday morning as the school board and village board met with some 50 citizens on the topic of building a new school board HQ on the parking lot at village hall.
The current D97 headquarters is a wreck and has to be replaced, said Gockel, who as a school board member 40 years ago put the school district into the building at 970 Madison St. And, he said, whatever the virtues of building at village hall, it is clearly unpopular with neighbors, and it's going to lead to an extended battle. Neither board needs to spend its goodwill and political capital on such a fight, said Gockel.
Now Galen and his wife Marge know something about village buildings coming into residential neighborhoods as their first house in Oak Park sat on what is now the village hall parking lot. They and their neighbors sold and moved when Oak Park put its village hall on Madison Street in the 1970s.
My sense from listening and reporting on this is that D97 building at village hall will not happen and for just the reason Gockel stated. No one on the village board wants this fight. Village board members want to help D97 with a building using the Madison Street TIF. That means the new school building will be somewhere along Madison Street but not at village hall.
Village board members want to focus on actual growth projects along Madison once they get the village's economic development apparatus realigned early in 2014. There is any number of opportunities for development, with key parcels on the street already owned by the village. On Monday, the board's economic development committee was also set to hear from two entities seeking financial incentives from the village to move or expand on Madison. Those would be Madison Street Theater (previously known as Village Players) and the grassroots Sugar Beet Co-op organic food project, which wants to open a store and seems to be eyeing Madison Street. Those are two projects worth serious consideration if we have finally moved past our fixation on spending TIF dollars only on fancy streetscaping.
Meanwhile, if the village board is looking for a place to focus its resources — development, inspections, marketing and the bully pulpit — it must turn actively to the Harrison Street Arts District. This vital area has suffered for decades as one family with ownership of six key properties at Harrison and Lombard has acted out a bizzaro scenario where some properties sat entirely empty while others actively decayed. A village government most often criticized for overreaching into the private market has proved utterly impotent over 30 years in confronting this blight, even as a nascent Arts District has somehow survived the rot at its core.
Adding to the worries on Harrison is the news that La Majada, the pioneering Mexican restaurant on Harrison, has fallen into foreclosure. The foreclosure notice ran in last week's Journal.
With all the Kleronomos properties already in foreclosure and LaMajada seemingly headed in that direction, what's the plan at village hall to directly and boldly find the opportunity in this pain?
So let's not fight over the D97 at village hall notion. Let's take the limited resources and do battle in the dark and blighted places where there is enormous upside.