Village hall's new $23K welcome

Some trustees say new "welcome center" sends the wrong message. Staff says it enhances customer service.

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Featuring wide hallways, sweeping windows, and few high walls between visitor and public servant, Oak Park's village hall was designed and built to be a physical reflection of a commitment to open government.

The building is so open, however, that according to village staff, it's left more than a few visitors wandering lost in search of the parking ticket office, and made it simpler for someone to slip past a security guard.

The village's latest effort to address these issues has resulted in construction of a custom-made, 200-square-foot "welcome center" at a cost of $23,000. That price tag covers just the expense of the desk area itself, and possibly chairs and filing cabinets, said Village Spokesman David Powers.

Aside from being more visible than its kiosk-like predecessor, the desk also has enough room for three people to sit, and its lower height makes it more accessible to persons with disabilities using wheelchairs, Powers said.

A portion of the center also now extends all the way to the edge of the village clerk's office. This is one aspect of the center that was designed to make the area more secure, said Village Manager Carl Swenson. Instead of being able to walk around both sides of the desk, visitors can only go around one way, making it easier for the night security guard to keep track of where people are headed.

Swenson said the main intent of constructing the center, however, was to more clearly show patrons where they can get questions answered, and to demonstrate "good customer service."

But, despite the desk's new features, some previous village board members are also saying its size
and design are at odds with the building's "open government" message.

"This is a first step into a statement that we no longer have open government," said architect and newly retired Trustee Gus Kostopulos, who added that he wasn't surprised by the cost of the desk area, but thought the project was "cheaply done." He also said "under the guise of needing room to expand and security" he fears this may be the beginning of more "draconian plans" for the building.

Kostopulos along with former Trustee Galen Gockel objected to the notion of a larger front desk area when it was first proposed at a study session.

"[The desk] would contradict the rationale for the architecture of the building, which is based on openness; the citizen can see his/her tax dollars at work," Gockel said, recalling his concerns.

The majority of the former board, however, agreed to move forward with the project. The desk is in keeping with a space study of village hall. The board did not vote specifically on the purchase of the desk, but money came out of a budget allocation approved by the board. Swenson said each year the village tries to make some capital improvements at village hall, built in 1974.

On the design of the new center, Swenson acknowledged that, "different people have different opinions," but said he believes the welcome center fits in with the rest of the building. "Anytime we do anything with the building we think of the intent of the architect," he said, adding that the design was intended to "not violate the whole concept of open government."

"I think it's in keeping with the décor of the building. I think visitors find it attractive and that they can get help right away," he said.

Newly-elected Village President David Pope?#34;who as a trustee supported the project?#34;said after seeing the new desk, he doesn't "have a strong opinion one way or the other."

"I hope it helps people get their questions answered and gives us a heightened level of customer service," he said.

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