By Dan Haley
Quite a week for Oak Park's village president, Anan Abu-Taleb. In office exactly a year, he celebrated this week as his key campaign promise of economic growth and development brought forth three notable advances on three major building projects. And he was humbled — shell-shocked by the intense and hostile reaction to a brown energy vote that he already wishes he could recast.
Welcome to the agony and the ecstasy of leadership in Oak Park.
Monday night, the village board tossed bouquets at the feet of developers ready to spend nearly $80 million (and to receive about $11 million in village "investment") to build retail and apartments on the world's most expensive surface parking lot on Lake Street in Downtown Oak Park.
Maybe as early as the close of this week, Abu-Taleb expects the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation to proffer a preferred developer for South and Harlem's long-vacant, village-owned property. And last Friday, Anan got the great news that the new and deep-pocketed developers of the Lake and Forest project, all 21 stories of gleaming glass and steel, had taken a major step toward actually owning the land they want to build on — one of those quirky details that still counts in development.
It was, he told me late Friday afternoon, "one of the better days I've had" during his year in office.
That day came, though, at the end of a week in which he and his fellow trustees (less one, the green queen, Colette Lueck) had been recycled and composted by an organized band of environmentalists who understood in a way our elected officials didn't quite gather that Oak Park has internalized sustainability as a core value. Integration. Diversity. Complaining. Granite counters. Youth soccer. Sustainability. Yes, it is right there in the pantheon of things that define us.
I saw the village president last Tuesday, maybe 12 hours after he'd felt the fury of the packed council chambers. At that point he was still making the market-based argument for his vote, saying that some decisions needed to be made without emotion and on straight business terms. I saw him again on Wednesday at a meeting, and something had started to shift as he talked more about making this right, ways to promote the green opt-in, ways this difficult moment could ultimately be a teaching moment for the village.
By Monday afternoon when we talked once again, the village president was just about at full-tilt contrite.
"I'm sorry I let people down. It is a vote I'd like to do over," he said.
As we talked, it was clear that Abu-Taleb has been hearing from a lot of people, and I know because I've been told that he has been actively reaching out to many critics this week.
"My kids are talking about it. My neighbors are talking to me about it," he said. "But you can't unfry an egg. We need to make this a sidestep because it is not a reverse in direction [on sustainability]," he said.
It was when he started talking about the heart component, the emotional piece of this issue, the missed opportunity to "not just be logical" but to embrace both the head and the heart in votes such as this that I understood this past week had been a learning moment for our still-new village president.
Not many decisions in public life, in life, are so clear-cut that either clear thinking or genuine feelings are optional.
It is awfully easy for a person, once elected, to believe he has greater insight, fuller information, wider perspective than the rest of us. Once in a while it is true. But usually it is just a way to armor up. I've got to admire a man with the heart, and the smarts, to listen well.
Answer Book 2018
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