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By Anna Lothson
The Village of Oak Park was left in the dust by the recently announced $500 million in federal grants for infrastructure projects, but that hasn't halted its planning efforts.
In March the village board approved a $108,000 no-bid contract to have the Chicago-based Lakota Group create plans for the Lake Street Corridor in downtown Oak Park from Harlem to Euclid. Although the contract was approved to increase the village's chances of securing the grants, Oak Park officials said for now they must tap into the village's own resources to continue the project.
The formation of a Lake Street Streetscape Committee, made up of village commission members, business association representatives, village staff and Lakota consultants, was approved last week to create a vision of what's next. Some trustees, however, were skeptical about forming a committee that has no financial or aesthetic guidance.
"I'm a little concerned — you form a committee around no parameters of what their budget is," Trustee Colette Lueck said. The committee, she added, may spend time on scenarios that are not viable and ideas that have to be scrapped.
Lueck is in favor of "broad-based" planning and said the committee must approach the plans knowing the funding limitations.
Loretta Daly, Oak Park business services manager, said this project will follow similar patterns of other streetscape projects in the village. She emphasized the Lake Street plans are in a very preliminary stage.
"We want to take an inventory of what current conditions are. We've begun to review different palettes that are available," she said. "We have in no way started to move into determining what we would want to begin to put forward."
Since there is no specific funding earmarked for the project, trustees stressed this undertaking has multiple directions it may or may not go. She said the committee is aware of the financial constraints and understands the board has not given direction on its viability.
Cara Pavlicek, interim village manager, explained that any streetscape project is typically part of the village's capital improvement program so funding comes from allocated sales tax dollars. The scope of the project would need board approval, but she said there may be possibilities for grants once the plans are done.
Trustee Adam Salzman suggested an amendment to the resolution requiring the committee to present two updates to the board before bringing forward its final proposal. The board agreed and unanimously approved the measure.
"When it comes to these streetscape proposals, most of the action seems to be taking place at the committee level," Salzman said. "I don't think that's a bad thing in and of itself, but I do think it may have helped cause us to run into some trouble at the board level because these plans get very far down the road."
He'd like to avoid playing catch-up and be involved in the discussions earlier.
"It's like trying to hop into a conversation that's already been going on for a few months — like trying to hop onto a moving train that's already barreling down the track," he said. "I'd like to board the train earlier."
Daly said the committee doesn't have a timeframe yet but indicated it would be a few months out. She added that the group has time to present two updates to the board.
Salzman emphasized it's important for the board to have some oversight without hindering the progress.
"I certainly don't think we should [inject] ourselves into the committee process," he said. "We could even curtail discussion. By the time the plan has come to us, we know what the alternatives have [been] and could be."
Moving forward with the project is important, said Trustee Ray Johnson, who noted that it's difficult to set a budget perimeter because the board hasn't started its 2013 budget process.
The village has infrastructure needs that must be met, he said, and this project is part of that.
"The only thing I want to amplify a bit in regards to the infrastructure is that having a menu of options is critical," he said, adding that having an understanding of the village's greatest needs could lead to prioritized decision making.
"We need to be much more fluid on how we prioritize all that work."