Election only hope for happy ending to 'Whiteco Big Top'

Opinion

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The carnival has moved to town and I have gorged myself on its obscene spectacle these past two years until I'm sick at heart. Our present administration and the majority of trustees have opened a permanent Whiteco Big Top, an entertainment where the public is invited to watch, but not participate, while pickpockets glide through the audience silently lifting their tax dollars.

Act 1: The first Whiteco proposal. After more than a year of secret negotiations, the government announced the largest giveaway of TIF dollars to a private developer this town has ever seen. Their plan was to erect a massive concrete building the size of a football field fronting Harlem Avenue. In Moscow, they would call this a government sponsored slum; in Oak Park, they called it a luxury high-rise.

In response, some of the best minds in Oak Park gathered to understand and dissect the Whiteco agreement. Documents were systematically obtained and studied. The residents performed the critical analysis that should have been done by our paid employees. What they realized was that the emperor had no clothes. The shoddy nature of the deal was exposed in many hours of testimony before the Plan Commission. After an exhaustive series of hearings, five Plan Commissioners had the courage to vote against it. The project was found not to be in the best interest of Oak Park.

Act 2: Whiteco is reborn. The board majority refused to accept the Plan Commission's findings. In a slick parliamentary maneuver, they withdrew the application and nullified the extensive efforts and expertise of both the plan commissioners and the public.

Whiteco and the village then spent a year brooding about ways to overcome this setback, and then the "Smoke and Mirrors" show was born: disguising the product in new packaging, throwing in a little public art for good effect; hiding the mass by cutting off the top of the tower in the architectural drawings to make the building look half its size; holding a lot of public meetings to later claim that they had "listened."

In June, 2004, at one of those unscripted public meetings that no one hears about, a room full of angry residents wanted to know why Whiteco had not reconceived the project to address the real issues of density, traffic, parking and congestion. Joanne Trapani, the inarticulate President of the Village Board, who rarely emerges from the protective cocoon of her bully pulpit at Village Hall chambers, jumped up to excoriate the crowd like a disappointed grade school teacher whose students were too dense to understand the many benefits of this grand vision, but there was no way to disguise the fact that they are proposing a concrete monstrosity.

Act 3: The fix is in. A new Plan Commission is mobilized, without direction to read the record of their predecessors, and sets a cynical agenda to do in eight days what the previous commission did in two months.

This time around the plan commissioners were bored and indifferent, hostile to the residents and confrontational during rebuttal testimony. It was a foregone conclusion and it was no accident that the commission insisted on proceeding during a raging blizzard.

Too much of the "testimony" for the village came from Mike Chen, director of development. Mr. Chen, the village front man for Whiteco who wears the hat of supposed neutral participant, spun tall tales of windfall tax returns while avoiding the magnitude of the imposition of a structure that compromises the essence of our historic landscape and the architectural spirit that brings people to this village.

In their concluding hearing, without due deliberation or discussion, the Plan Commission approved Whiteco 6-1, tacking on a few silly "conditions" like a trellis of greenery fronting the garage.

For me, Whiteco has become the nightmare scene from "It's a Wonderful Life," where Jimmy Stewart is running down the main street of Bedford Falls, now transformed by the unchecked greed of Mr. Potter into a cheap, gaudy free-for-all.

There is still time to stop this vanity project, but now it's an issue for the election and people will need to stand up and be counted.

Bernell Loeb
Oak Park

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