Speed vs. process in Downtown debate

? Trustees seek more input while business leaders, committee chairs fret over lost momentum.

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By KATHARINE GRAYSON

Though Oak Park's downtown plan was approved in March, it underwent additional scrutiny last week by the new village board and a panel of historic preservationists, citizen commission chairs and the downtown business association.

What will happen next as a result of that discussion remains unclear, but village staff was directed at the end of the meeting to investigate a number of possibilities, including making zoning changes and putting a "pause," or moratorium, on development until the board sorts out where it wants to take the plan and downtown. In addition, some board members expressed interest in participating in the National Trust for Historic Preservation's "Main Street" program. The program, said Midwest director of the Trust Royce Yeater, would involve hiring a Trust consultant for $25,000. The consultant would help the village guide development in a way that is sensitive to the historic character of downtown, he said.

Last Wednesday's discussion came in accordance with an amendment proposed by former Trustee Galen Gockel when the plan was approved.

The amendment required the plan be publicly vetted by members of state, national and local preservation groups. Members of those groups have argued that the plan unnecessarily calls for the demolition of historically significant buildings. The Tudor-style buildings on Westgate Street, some of which would be demolished to make way for a new street under the plan, have been placed on the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois' (LPCI) list of the top 10 most endangered historic places in the state.

And at last week's meeting, some panel members maintained that the plan disrespects downtown's historic character.

"The commission recognizes the value of a downtown plan. No plan is perfect. Not having one can be more of a disaster," said Historic Preservation Commission Chair Doug Gilbert. "We felt there should be more of an emphasis on historic preservation. If it is not listed as a fundamental concept, there is a good chance it will be ignored."

"We were troubled by the notion that the master plan seeks to reinforce the historic character of the village, but proposes to destroy the historic character of the underutilized buildings west of Marion Street," said Robert Tucker, chair of the village's Community Design Commission.

Some panel members argued in response, however, that the plan included enough public input. The consulting firm of Crandall and Arambula, which crafted the plan, held public meetings and used a ballot system to gauge public opinion. The majority of ballots cast supported schemes incorporated into the final plan.

Mike Fox, president of Downtown Oak Park, said businesses want the village board to take action downtown as soon as possible, rather than hold more meetings.

"One of the biggest fears here is a fear of inaction. Here we are again coming up for reasons to not like the plan. Maybe people weren't listening, but there was a lot of input at the time," he said. "We just want to see things happen. A lot of people are on hold with properties. Let's make a decision."

Other commission chairs also urged the board to seek a balance between historic preservation and economic development.

"Any process that is driven by pro historic preservation or pro development is a faulty process. It's all about how those pieces fit together," said Plan Commission Chair Colette Lueck. "Downtown is not a vibrant, developed district by any means."

"I would caution a bit against losing the tremendous momentum we have right now," said Zoning Board of Appeals Chair Ralph Gerbe. "Some of the best decisions are made quickly. The question is how do we gather the right amount of input, while not compromising a once in a lifetime opportunity [to develop] at a time when the market place is working in our favor."

Despite those comments, however, many board members said Crandall and Arambula's public forums were rushed and the plan still needed further review because residents did not get to comment on the final product before it was voted on.

"I understand where businesses are coming from. They want to make money. The problem is what are the tradeoffs. We want to make sure we represent 52,000 citizens," said Trustee Robert Milstein."

"I'm sensitive to the fact that the plan didn't include enough of a nod to historic preservation," said Trustee Greg Marsey, who also said he also thought the plan didn't effectively "wed" parts of downtown with different character together.

In accordance with a second amendment proposed by former Trustee Galen Gockel, the village is looking to hire a firm to create a three dimensional model of the greater downtown area.

The model would encompass Oak Park's entire downtown Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district, which includes not only downtown proper, but The Avenue and South/Marion business districts. Buildings in the model could be moved or removed.

In addition to the physical model, the village is also looking for a computerized model of downtown, said Village Planner Craig Failor.

The exact scale of the model hasn't been settled on, Failor said, though the ratio may be roughly 50 feet to one inch. This would make the entire model, from east to west, six feet, and from north to south, four or five feet, he said.

The model will be monochrome, and will likely be on display somewhere at village hall.

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