By Anna Lothson
An updated version of Oak Park's 20-year-old comprehensive plan is one step closer to becoming a reality.
The village board provided initial approval last week to enter into a contract with Houseal Lavigne Associates, a Chicago-based consulting firm specializing in community planning, for an amount not to exceed $200,000. John Houseal, a principal in the firm, is a River Forest resident.
That amount, however, is coming to the village through a recently secured Sustainable Communities Challenge Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and will allow village staff, various community stakeholders, and the firm the opportunity to create a vision of Oak Park's future.
A key component of the plan itself is getting input from a diverse selection of people across the village so multiple interests are considered as the consulting firm draws up its initial proposals.
This aspect involves forming a steering committee that draws from 17 voices. This includes village staff specifically the village planner; business service manager; sustainability manager; health director; community relations director; urban planner; village engineer, assistant to the village manager. The group will also include a plan commission chairperson; a plan commission member; two village board members; two residents and two business representatives.
Village staff in other departments will also be on reserve for special topics, like the police and fire chiefs, interim village manager, community development manager, among others. To keep the information organized, the consulting firm will create a website specifically for the comprehensive plan process.
"We think it is a very well-rounded committee," Craig Failor, village planner, said.
Failor explained that for the village to be eligible for the grant per the requirements of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the village must remain actively involved in the process. The $200,000 grant must be matched by the village in its staff time to ensure the process is moving along.
During last week's meeting, village board members raised a number of questions and concerns about the process of the steering committee.
Trustee Adam Salzman said the committee could get diffused with too many people involved and not enough communication between parties. He said it's critical there be outlets of communication to continually engage people.
Failor said the goal is to get as much public input as possible, but said it's always tricky keeping people actively involved. He assured there would be multiple opportunities for public input.
Trustee Glenn Brewer agreed the makeup of the steering committee matters, because adding too many people could "turn analysis in to paralysis," which he thinks would stifle progress.
The discussion of how staff heavy the process should be was a common theme among trustees and many of the board members agreed the language in the village documents may need tweaking. Trustee Colette Lueck said she learned the purpose of the plan is different than what she initially thought.
"The role of the steering committee isn't to create the plan," she said. "The role is to make sure the process is moving forward."
Lueck commented that the goals sought in the comprehensive plan reflect more of a strategic plan than the village's initial comprehensive plan created long ago.
"This reads to me like it's a very different plan," she said. The old plan held up well, she added, but agreed it's time for change. "I think of our current plan as it's really affirming what our values are as a community. There are some action steps or recommended steps but it's not very detailed in terms of implementation. It's a very broad and conceptualized plan."
The topic of including a representative from each business district was discussed as a way to include more input, but Lueck pointed out that may lead to business district association leaders only representing their area, rather than Oak Park as a whole. Having two representatives, she said, would allow two leaders to bring together the business community.
Because the new plan is expected to implement substantial changes, she affirmed it made sense to have the steering committee driven by the board and staff, but still with outside perspective.
"What I'm hearing here is heavy on the process and probably lighter on community input and that's probably OK," Salzman said. "Because if the job is to keep everything and everyone on task then it might be alright if you don't have a representative of everyone in the village on the steering committee."
Trustee Ray Johnson said it's important to emphasize that it's a requirement of the grant to keep staff involved in the steering committee. His concerns, however, centered on the fact the committee may be too light on public engagement because of the meeting times. The committee is likely to meet once a month, but early in the morning.
"I'm still concerned about that," Johnson said. "With schedules, we could have no residents."