By Anna Lothson
It was the historical review and planning perspective versus the time for steadfast policy change that defined the passionately discussed and debated zoning variance discussion at Monday evening's Oak Park village board meeting.
By the close of the three-hour meeting, the board had adopted -- nearly unanimously -- three zoning measures that were on the agenda and sharply split on zoning votes that were not on the agenda at all.
As a result, allowed uses in Oak Park's three Transit Overlay Districts – Downtown Oak Park, The Hemingway District and Southtown – will be substantially restricted. But at the same time, by a 4-3 vote, the Plan Commission will be charged with reviewing whether Southtown should be part of a retail-focused zoning district at all. A portion of The Hemingway District, formerly The Avenue, was nearly sent to the Plan Commission for review, too. But the urging of the village attorney that Village President Anan Abu-Taleb recuse himself from that vote since his restaurant is on the block being discussed, led to a 3-3 tie that defeated that idea.
The intertwining of the planned zoning debate and unexpected introduction of the reconsideration of some Overlay Districts made for a confusing, passionate and political discussion with multiple timeouts as trustees confirmed which motion they were actually voting on.
Trustees Colette Lueck, Ray Johnson and Glenn Brewer voted against any referrals to the Plan Commission arguing instead for a historical review of just how and why Oak Park set out to create Transit Overlay Districts in the first place. The emphasis on studying past history proved highly frustrating to Trustee Adam Salzman who said that conditions currently existing and troubling to local business owners should trump historical considerations.
That view resonated with Abu-Taleb and Trustees Bob Tucker and Peter Barber who supported faster action by having the Plan Commission begin public hearings.
Abu-Taleb brought perspectives central to his spring campaign for village president to the board table Monday reflecting his longtime business ownership. Abu-Taleb said zoning processes take too long and are too complex for new businesses.
"We can keep it simple, keep it short, keep it at an area where it works," Abu-Taleb said of Transit Overlay Districts. He believes the village is over-regulated and in some areas of the village he wants to see the market decide what's best, not the village. He suggested government keep their hands out of that matter.
Johnson, however, didn't share that view. Overall, Johnson, Lueck and Brewer suggested the board is careful in how it moves forward with such important decisions that affect business and residents. Johnson suggested it would be improper to open up the zoning issue "wide open" without any review of how the board arrived at the earlier decisions.
Salzman said he understood those points and said that although zoning issues come with historical background, he said now is not the time for a history lesson.
Salzman stressed that it's important to define policies in a manner that the public understands so time and money is not wasted.
"To tell someone who's got skin in the game and has invested money and to tell them that they just don't understand the history is not an appropriate response," Salzman said. "We need to improve the level of communication with our business districts. We've been told that time and time and again."
Trustee Lueck offered her perspective on the matter shortly before this and said that Oak Park must consider all affected parties when making such decisions.
"I don't think the business owners are the ultimate user. I think the business owners are one of the users. They are not the one and only. Our job is to balance the needs of the business owner, make their lives as easy as we possibly can, given the incredible limitations they have and we have, at the same we need to maximize the most precious resource — which is land," Lueck said." We have very little opportunity here for development. We have to make the most of every piece of property we have. That's the only way to grow the tax base. I think we have an obligation as the board to take the responsibility seriously."
The evening also brought out perspective of business owners, Oak Park Development Corporation and the Oak Park-River Forest Chamber of Commerce.
Sara Faust, president of OPDC, told the board it is not always in support of retail overlay districts and asked for Oak Park to match its policies with market changes to keep business districts full.
"Our hope is that we look to zoning to not only discourage but only encourage the type of businesses that enhance the Oak Park economy. …We should all work to ensure the path for the exception is clear and is as short as possible because a quick no or a quick yes is more respectful of market timing and the financial resources of the landlord, tenant or the perspective investor."
Chamber director Cathy Yen also weighed in.
"A retail overlay district ordinance cannot create a demand for retail where it doesn't already exist – nor change to available building stock to accommodate sustainable retail. And we never, ever want to alienate those existing businesses already operating in districts contrary to current variance standards (received or grandfathered). We just need transparency and fairness around when a variance is approved so everyone can understand it."
Check back with Wednesday Journal's June 12 issue for more on zoning regulations in Oak Park.