2017 was a busy year in River Forest

National impact felt with welcoming ordinance

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By Nona Tepper

From historic preservation to new hires and retires, there was plenty going on in River Forest in 2017.

Trinity High School started the year with a bang, celebrating its centennial with a series of events, fundraisers and an announcement by its longtime president, Sister Michelle Germanson, that she planned to step down. She will stay on as president emeritus and direct alumni relations for the school. 

Police Chief Gregory Weiss and Fire Chief Jim Eggert joined the Trinity prez in announcing their retirements. Chief Weiss served in the department for 30 years; Chief Eggert for 13 years. 

Speaking of first-responders, River Forest police stayed busy. In March, Elpidio Flores died in a house fire in the 500 block of Park Avenue. He died of smoke inhalation, according to a spokesman for the Cook County Medical Examiner. In early December, Steven Ward of Chicago was killed in a "gang assassination" at the intersection of North and Harlem Avenues. Later that month, River Forest police played host to law enforcement officers from a number of other municipalities — including Oak Park, Forest Park and Chicago — to tackle the area's growing number of car thefts and carjacking incidents.

Along Harlem, between North Avenue and Cermak Road, law enforcement has been particularly stringent. Between January 2014 and October 2016, Wednesday Journal found more than $26.5 million in red-light camera citations were issued to motorists along this path. Based on those numbers, that stretch might be the most lucrative four-mile length of road in the entire state. The two red-light cameras on Harlem Avenue in River Forest — at North Avenue and Lake Street — have issued more than $5.2 million in citations since the start of 2014. The North Avenue camera is the village's real moneymaker, issuing almost $3.8 million in citations since the start of 2014.

The money has been earmarked for capital improvements in the village, said Village Administrator Eric Palm. River Forest pocketed at least $2.6 million from those cameras since 2014; the rest went to vendor SafeSpeed, a politically-connected business that has received relatively little public scrutiny despite its work in about a dozen suburban municipalities and despite records that indicate the company's cameras produce citations at startlingly high rates.

Palm defended SafeSpeed's work, saying the installation of such stringent red-light cameras were necessary to control increased pedestrian and vehicle traffic along Harlem.

On a lighter note, Dominican University broke into the top 20 on the U.S. News & World Report college rankings list. Dominican was ranked 19th overall, and was named the fifth in Best Value Schools for the Midwest. Concordia University placed 75th overall on the magazine's prestigious list.

Dominican also re-affirmed its support for undocumented students, after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced President Trump's decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. The university also re-affirmed its sanctuary status, vowing to withhold access to any student information — including immigration status — by officials unless they show documentation.

The village of River Forest joined the university in adopting an ordinance to protect undocumented individuals, with trustees voting almost unanimously to add a welcoming resolution in August.

In other education news, River Forest District 90 school students continued to outperform the state average in the annual test of students' English Language Arts and math abilities, with 68 percent of D90 students either meeting or exceeding standards set by the Illinois State Board of Education, compared to a state average of about 34 percent. The state-mandated PARCC exam is administered in March at all public schools in Illinois. Although the district continues to outperform the state, low-income and students of color continue to perform behind their white counterparts. The district has introduced a number of efforts to achieve equity for these students, including its upcoming "One Book, One District" community reading initiative. 

In April, Lynn Libera and Cheryl Cargie were sworn in as new park district commissioners. Later in the year, they joined other commissioners in agreeing to halt talks about a prospective community recreational center that would have been shared by residents in River Forest and Oak Park. Michael Sletten, River Forest Park District's executive director, told Wednesday Journal that the park district wasn't ruling out the community center — they just plan to continue talks later.

Patty Henek and Respicio Vazquez were elected as new trustees to the River Forest Village Board, after a heated election in which many residents voted for two new trustees but left their third option blank. This strategy knocked former trustee Tom Dwyer off the board. Incumbent trustee Tom Cargie also won his second term.

Board officials were busy this year, hearing from a number of developers about plans for the town. Sedgwick properties unveiled plans for a five-story, condo-retail development at the corner of Lake and Lathrop before the board in November. This is the third time Sedgwick has come to the board with plans for this site.

Also in November, trustees voted to spend $1 million to buy the old Lutheran Child and Family Services building on Madison Street, in the hope that redevelopment can generate additional property tax revenue for the village. Officials will loan money from the village's general fund cash reserves to the Madison Street Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district, which, so far, has not generated enough incremental tax revenue to buy the building.

The limits of the Historic Preservation Ordinance were tested earlier this year, with the Historic Preservation Commission delaying a developer's plans to knock down a home on the 700 block of William Street, a historic block which represents the first Prairie School planned development in the state. The commission voted to block the demolition six months, unless the developer, Mayborn Development, complies with conditions about design and structure of the new home.

CONTACT: ntepper@wjinc.com

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