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By Dan Haley
When you hitch your hopes for economic development almost entirely to fancy brick streets, light bulbs hanging over the street and "water features," then you better get some payback from property owners in the form of new retail tenants, the activity they create and the sales taxes they generate.
Somehow this simple reward-and-benefit equation got stomped last week when the Oak Park village board voted 7-0 not to require landlords along the 100 block of South Marion Street to lease their storefronts to retailers. This is the block which in the past year received $5 million — the last major investment from the now zombie downtown TIF — to make it the street beautiful twin of North Marion Street.
The difference is that north of the Green Line, property owners long understood they had to rent their ground-floor spaces to retailers or restaurants. No chiropractors, financial advisers or Realtors.
That's a fair deal. The village invests our money to dramatically upgrade the street in front of your commercial property. And the village gets what it wants for its main commercial district — retail activity and all the benefits which follow.
But in a sequence of events which suggests a whole lot more division and dissent then a 7-0 vote would imply, this board (and staff) made a bollix out of something which should have followed a mighty straight line.
This debacle started a year ago when Village President David Pope thought the obvious brilliance of his notion of unifying three separate commercial areas — Downtown Oak Park, South Marion and The Avenue along Oak Park Avenue — into a single marketable entity, dubbed The Downtown Districts, would carry the day with a newly reconstituted village board.
Beyond marketing his creation, Pope long has wanted to physically unify the three distinct areas under a blizzard of bricks and bluestone sidewalks.
Pope pushed hard, he pushed late and he pushed without preparation to have his reluctant board sign off on a massive financial commitment to repeat the North Marion model on both South Marion and on Oak Park Avenue from Lake Street to Pleasant. The board balked, and for a brief moment it looked as if Pope would come up empty. Instead he pulled out a semi-face-saving 4-3 OK to move ahead, but only on South Marion.
But in that rush to lavish $5 million on a block which has traditionally been an eclectic mash-up of services, restaurants and a bit of retail, no one made a point of formalizing the obvious. The property owners get the bricks and the village imposes a legal obligation that retail rules.
Now we are left with this bizarre and backward village board-imposed reality: South Marion Street is now a showplace ready to do a star turn for an insurance office or whatever entity can pay the rent.
Over on the 100 block of South Oak Park Avenue, where the Wednesday Journal offices — and I'm one of the owners of the building — reside, we have streetscaping that is 30 years old and looks it, we have a raft of vacancies and we have a village-imposed, retail-only requirement.
That's right. Several months ago the village board, having rightly decided against investing millions it turns out the TIF didn't have to turn my block into Marion Street East, voted to require retail on this block. A tough call, and as a landlord with a small vacant storefront, a real issue. But I supported that decision. Now I feel like a dupe.
Economic development is complex. This wasn't. This was a political failure on a policy board that let itself be led too far down a yellow brick road that it really wasn't sold on. When the logical next step of the retail-only requirement was finally presented, pressure was applied from significant and unified property owners. And a divided village board finally split into its constituent parts, oddly reflected in a unanimous vote.