Is there anyone else out there who is relieved that the Plan Commission approved the Whiteco project two weeks ago, clearing the way for final Board of Trustee approval?
To read the mind-numbing weekly rants that have appeared in these pages for the past two years, it would be easy for the casual reader to conclude that the project is utterly beyond the pale, a frightening and costly attempt by a secretive board to foist off a huge monstrosity on a powerless citizenry that would lead to gridlock in downtown Oak Park and craven Trader Joe's patrons bowling over senior citizens in their rush to buy their weekly rations of "two-buck Chuck." It has even been seriously suggested that a better alternative would have been a giant food court, featuring the culinary delights of, among other things, British food.
Then again, maybe most folks just skipped the rants?#34;who has the time??#34;and simply wished the whole thing were over, so they could admit that they don't really mind the idea of a 14-story building in that location, that they are actually looking forward to shopping at Trader Joe's, to parking more conveniently, to having a more vibrant downtown, to improving the village's housing mix and, most importantly, to having an expanded tax base that will benefit our struggling schools and help keep the skyward advance of our property tax bills in check. In fact, that's what most people I talk to who have been watching all this from the sidelines seem to think about Whiteco.
Is Whiteco a good deal or a bad deal? It strikes me as a lot more good than bad, and certainly nowhere near the outrage that opponents make it out to be. The Board of Trustees?#34;two boards, really?#34;did what "trustees" are supposed to do: When presented with an unsolicited viable proposal for a mixed-use development, the board ultimately determined that it was in the best interests of Oak Park to move forward with a development deal. The Plan Commission has now determined, again in the interests of Oak Park as a whole and after many hours of public testimony, that higher density, mixed-use with residential rentals is an appropriate use for that parcel.
Opponents have argued that the village's TIF subsidy is too generous. It's hard to say. The village will recoup its investment in eight years, and by that time, our schools will have already received $7 million out of this deal. Opponents seem to think we should leave it all to the free market, but a developer paying full freight for the land is going to want to build what that developer wants to build, and isn't going to want too many strings attached, or to spend too long consulting with neighbors. The result, most likely, wouldn't be very pretty. We would either get saddled with whatever the developer wants to build "by right," according to the underlying zoning code, or a planned development proposal that could be picked apart until the developer decides that full price is too much to pay for the hassle.
The problem I have with Whiteco's proponents, on and off the village board, is that they haven't been out front enough in their support, ceding the public forum to opponents, and resulting in the public at-large being at a loss to distinguish between valid criticism and what was simply the venting of frustrated NIMBYs. And, let's be honest, a lot of the most vocal opponents of Whiteco have been "Not In My Backyard" folks living nearby.
With the nearly completed downtown master plan prepared by Crandall-Arambula, we now have an excellent opportunity to move beyond the Whiteco wars. Surely we can find substantial common ground in that document, with its proposals to limit building heights, use TIF money for public improvements rather than for project subsidies, improve traffic flow and parking, build public spaces and attract mixed-use development.
The plan essentially challenges us to remake our downtown into something as interesting and vibrant as the village itself. In the process, we can expand our tax base to preserve our schools. It's a win-win scenario.
Jon Hale was a member of the Oak Park Plan Commission from 1998-2004.