By Dan Haley
Two things are likely to happen this week on the Oak Park block where I've come to work each morning for the past 30 years. Taken individually, each notable proposal could make sense. Put them together and they conflict.
Tonight Oak Park Township is asking taxpayers — and here I mean actual Oak Park taxpayers who show up in a room this evening and vote — to approve its purchase of a two-story commercial building on the 100 block of South Oak Park Avenue. The township wants to use the site as a senior citizen center. That building is across the street from the current township headquarters.
It is also directly across the street from the Journal. When I sit in meetings in our plush conference room I look at that building which has been empty for several years and previously was a laundromat and a vacuum cleaner shop.
Next week the Oak Park village board is voting on whether to fast-track a major upgrade in the streetscaping on our block and also on the same block of South Marion Street, a few blocks west of us. It is a costly proposition as the work would be first rate. Fancy sidewalks, brick street, new lighting and landscaping.
Now if you've been to Maya del Sol, Grape Leaves or George's Restaurant — the major draws on our fairly tacky block — you might have noticed that the sidewalks have buckled up in a few fall-inducing spots, that the brick pavers from the 1980s are uneven and worn, that the grates around the overlarge flowering pear trees are long gone and the frames for the grates have been pushed out of the ground by the tree roots.
And the corner of Oak Park and South — opposite the Green Line entrance — is a mess of shrubs and curb cuts and parking spaces that are unwelcoming and unthought out at what is reportedly the top tourist entrance into our town.
In short, we need some help. The question is how much help. If the township takes one of the key vacancies off the tax rolls to put it to a good, if unspectacular, use as a senior center and if, as we've reported, the old Thyme & Honey/Val's halla space is under contract for great use as a restaurant, then what is the financial return to the village in spending Tax Increment Financing funds on the ultra-upgrade to a block that is nearly filled?
Yes, we need some spiffing up so our customers don't fall down. Yes, the corner needs to be "reimagined," and reimagining always costs more than new paving bricks. But one government taking over a major commercial space while another government sinks big bucks into streetscaping seems, to me, like a disconnect. Especially in a time when tax dollars, of any kind, are scarce.
A second topic but only a few words on it this week: Obviously collective bargaining for public employees is much in the news. The historic problem here is not union members bargaining as a group. That's the essential role of unions. The problem — and this applies directly in Oak Park and River Forest — is historically weak elected and appointed officials who have caved to unions on wages, benefits and working conditions. Meanwhile, the state has been giving away the store on pensions.
Unions have demanded, cajoled, outmaneuvered the good, decent, well-intentioned people we have elected to serve their four years or eight in public office. The long financial picture has been missing, the hole has been getting deeper, and now, in this remarkable moment, tensions are rising.
That makes this the moment to demand that the people we elect to the school boards and the village boards be dead serious about issues like merit pay, changes to tenure for teachers, raising retirement ages for cops and holding a stiff line on salaries.