Downtown plan: is it 'visionary' or just 'just a vision?'

? Most OP trustees give the Crandall Arambula plan thumbs up. Board critics voice concerns on funding, TIF extension and traffic.

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By KATHARINE GRAYSON

At its first public review of Crandall Arambula's draft master plan Thursday, the Oak Park village board gave consultants' recommendations for improvements to downtown mostly favorable reviews.

A few trustees, however, also pressed for more details on the financial implications of the plan, and the most outspoken critic, Trustee Robert Milstein, questioned whether the plan could be implemented without an extension of the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district.

"This plan exceeds my expectations by any stretch," said Trustee Ray Johnson. "It's visionary, dynamic, bold."

Trustee Gus Kostopulos said he was "very impressed" with the plan, and had no further questions for consultants George Crandall and Don Arambula, who presented a near-final draft of the plan to the board last week.

"I have also been very pleased. This is a citizen-driven plan," said Trustee Diana Carpenter. "As a community and as a board, we've struggled with how much retail square footage [we can support downtown], how many housing units. I think this plan addresses that."

The specificity of the plan also drew support from Trustee Galen Gockel.

"I appreciated the detail in the report. It was also quite appropriate that you didn't back away from controversial issues," he said.

However, Gockel also said it's important that the board receive cost estimates for every project, and he had concerns that the village is "jumping out of the airplane without a parachute."

Milstein, however, said he had "very strong reservations" about the plan, especially regarding the proposed creation of "Station Street," which would run from the train station on North Boulevard through to Lake Street, and would require demolition of several buildings.

"I wouldn't call it visionary, but it's a vision of Oak Park. You did a good job doing what you were asked to do," he said. "It strikes me that Station Street is going to get backed up."

Consultants have said creating the new street?#34;and re-opening the Marion Street mall?#34;will help reduce traffic congestion, but Milstein said he believes it's likely the new streets will also get overburdened by traffic.

Village President Joanne Trapani said, however, she believed new roadways would "create a conveyance for local traffic."

Based on a recently completed traffic study, if the plan is implemented, traffic on Harlem would increase from 36,000 cars per day, to 38,000; on Lake from 12,600 to 13,199; and on North Boulevard from 7,000 to 8,000.

Over the last several months, planning consultants have strongly argued that the village should extend its downtown TIF district. At last week's meeting, Crandall said without the TIF, the village would be "hat in hand, taking what you can get."

After being asked by Milstein, consultants said the village could issue bonds to pay for improvements, or use money from its own budget.

Milstein said he's not convinced those tools couldn't be used, as the village is "aggressively paying down its debt."

Village Finance Director Greg Peters said, however, that without the TIF fund?#34;revenue which the village can use to back up bonds?#34;the village would likely have to raise property taxes.

Trustee David Pope also focused much of his comments on financing, saying he would like more detailed information on how the plan would ultimately impact property taxes.

"As I think about dollars to be spent, as it impacts quality of life, it's very helpful to see what the future looks like," he said, "whether it will increase or decrease taxes. Right now, we don't have an answer. There's no way to project.

"Right now the argument needs to be based on quality of life. No one can say over time that this will lower taxes," he added.

In response, however, Trapani argued that it would likely be impossible to predict how the plan would affect taxes, as too many details?#34;such as what type of stores would occupy retail space?#34;are unknown.

Pope also said he was "not a big fan" of reopening the Marion Street mall.

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