On Thursday, Feb. 3, the Plan Commission will likely reach a decision on the Whiteco project.
Most of the presentations against the project, including my own, were based on the bad financial aspects of the deal: The appraisal undervalues the land being sold to Whiteco; the potential tax income to the village is overstated and will take much longer to realize than projections submitted by the applicants; the $8.2 million subsidy to Whiteco is excessive and unnecessary for a project costing $45 million, given the desirability of downtown Oak Park. The village has agreed to spend an additional $7.2 million to expand the Holley Court garage west to Harlem Avenue, $3.2 million of which is required directly by Whiteco.
These financial presentations addressed clause B of the Economic Standard, one of four standards that a planned development must meet to win Plan Commission approval:
The proposed use or combination of uses is economically feasible and does not pose a current or potential burden upon the services, tax base, or other economic factors that affect the financial operations of the village, except to the extent that such burden is balanced by the benefit derived by the Village from the proposed use.
The Plan Commission attorney initially stated that the village subsidy could be considered an undue burden on Oak Park taxpayers, and accordingly, the chair allowed financial matters to be discussed. No fewer than eight presentations touched on the financials of the deal.
However, last Thursday, Jan. 27, just before deliberations began, the Plan Commission attorney was once again asked for his opinion on the relevance of the financial analyses presented by project opponents. This time, however, his explanation was less definitive. He stated that the Plan Commission is primarily charged with reviewing the land use impacts of a planned development, which does not normally include the project's economic specifics. On the other hand, since the Village of Oak Park is a co-applicant on this project (this is a first for the Plan Commission), the standard could be interpreted to allow a broader discussion of the economic burden to taxpayers.
The Plan Commission Chair then gave her interpretation of the attorney's explanation, stating that in the context of land use, the financial standard does not seem to allow the commissioners to consider the economic specifics of the deal between the village and Whiteco. With that ruling, the chair in effect rendered moot all financial testimony in opposition to the project.
Thankfully, other commissioners were not convinced that this was the right interpretation, citing the latitude provided by the broad language of the standard.
It's no exaggeration to say that this is the most important decision the Plan Commission will make since its inception. This project has dragged on for more than four years, since the village began initial discussions with Whiteco (then Prime Realty) and the previous Plan Commission has already rejected the first iteration of this project.
On a decision that will set the precedent for future downtown development, I would respectfully ask all of the commissioners to consider every aspect of this project, including the economics of the deal, before rendering such a sweeping decision.