Madison St. debate: Streetscaping vs. developer incentives

Coalition impatient for movement after long delays

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By Anna Lothson

Staff Reporter

Further evidence of the Oak Park village board's new direction was on display Monday night. The topic was the long-debated future of Madison Street. The discussion sharpened into the question of whether limited village TIF funds should be spent on a previously proposed streetscaping overhaul or on financial incentives to specific developers at specific sites.

While no conclusion was reached, the tide seemingly turned away from a singular focus on streetscaping – a narrower road, bike lanes, new street furniture and lighting – and toward investing TIF funds in bringing businesses to the street with a dollop of aesthetic improvements along the way.

Village staff left the meeting with a lengthy to-do list based on the board's shift in thinking.

Residents who voiced an opinion during Monday's special Oak Park village board meeting made their vision for Madison Street clear. Add bike lanes, make it pedestrian friendly and create a sense of unity with a streetscaping plan.

Dennis Marani, chairperson of the Madison Street Coalition continued that clear-cut vision, and called on the board to act now on a commercial corridor many residents felt has been left behind.

"We have gone a long way in researching this," Marani said. The plan hasn't been talked about in two years and has been tabled multiple times, he said. "You can hear the support for this. … You have our endorsement. You've had our endorsement. … We know it by heart. We've been involved. Let's make a move on Madison Street."

The total estimated cost of the proposed plan, referred to as the Madison Street Right-of-Way Enhancement Plan, is $17.4 million. Potential TIF funds and grants would cover some of this cost, but the real debate of the evening came down to streetscaping vs. economic development and how they relate. The economics of attracting developers to Madison through financial incentives was another major talking point among board members.

The board agreed now is the time to tackle the question of how to enhance Madison, but the split was about how and when that can realistically be done. Trustees addressed the harsh financial reality that the entire redevelopment project drawn up eight years ago is simply not feasible. Trustees suggested achieving such a plan would require either making deep cuts to other village spending or raising property taxes — two options the board also agreed were not doable.

The board was initially presented with three alternatives:

  • Pedestrian level enhancements: new lighting, street furniture, planters, crosswalks, and refuge islands from Harlem Avenue to Austin Boulevard. Estimated cost: $6.9 million.
  • Major water and sewer updates and bike lane/traffic calming focused enhancements using TIF funds and bonding options to create bike lanes and remove current medians. Estimated cost: $15.2 million.
  • Do nothing in the way of streetscaping.

Trustee Adam Salzman suggested that not enough alternatives were being presented to the board Monday evening, saying that they focused primarily on streetscaping and left little room for direct economic development initiatives. He wants more money geared toward economic development and suggested the village needs to define return on investment before moving forward.

"Everything needs to be approached in the proper realm," Salzman said. "It seems to me the best way to improve economic development on Madison Street is to develop it."

Trustee Bob Tucker agreed Salzman's points were valid and suggested the board tackle the project within its means, but with quick solutions that can improve the road sooner rather than later. He said bike lanes, for example, would be a quicker fix because the village has a grant in place if it provides a match of just above $100,000.

"But the overall road diet and the price tag associated with that is really a difficult pill to swallow," Tucker added.

'It's not going to be perfect'

Trustees agreed Madison as it is currently constructed is not functioning properly in terms of infrastructure and economic development, and Salzman suggested money be spent in a specific, targeted way. He said projects need to be addressed through departments which they relate to, not simply relying on the economic development department.

"It needs to be a silver bullet, not silver buckshot," Salzman said.

In terms of TIF funding, Craig Lesner, Oak Park's chief financial officer, said there is about $7 million available for either streetscaping or economic development or a combination. He said that "every dollar [the village is] collecting going forward is going right back out (to other taxing bodies under the TIF agreement)."

Trustee Ray Johnson said that as the village moves forward with any project, it must be cautious with its spending because of other factors that are out of the village's control, like the rising shift in pension costs.

"We are looking at this potential scenario without taking that into account," Johnson said. "Those are facts of life that are out there."

The entire $17.7 million project calls for improving the corridor by moving parking and curbs, adding bike lanes from Home to Oak Park, adding a protected bike lane from Oak Park to Lombard and removing the center landscape medians. It also calls for new amenities such as lighting, street furniture, planters, trees, enhanced sidewalks and refuge islands.

This street enhancement plan is recommended by the Madison Street Streetscape Steering Committee. The Madison Street TIF was created in 1995 to fund projects like this, which included the agreement between the village and School District 97 regarding distribution of TIF funds. D97 officials have said they are open to reopening the TIF to allow for economic development in the community.

President Anan Abu-Taleb said he wants full reports of how the village uses TIF dollars readily available for the public. He suggested the board resolve past issues with D97 about TIF funding so the community can move forward with a clear direction. He also said this project must involve sending a message to the business community that the village desires to develop a clear business strategy for the project.

"No matter how hard we try, it's not going to be perfect," Abu-Taleb said. "The business community needs some sort of certainty before they make a move."

Trustee Glenn Brewer followed up the village president's comments by suggesting that this is not the time to do another fancy streetscape project. He thinks money should be set aside for developer incentives.

"We don't necessarily have to have the Cadillac or the Mercedes Benz of streetscaping," Brewer said. "I think a good GM will take us where we need to be."

Streetscaping and economic development

While a majority of the board argued the concept of focusing on economic development above hefty streetscaping, Trustee Colette Lueck suggested streetscaping is economic development.

"It is not as black as I hear people describe it," Lueck said. "It's not all or nothing."
Because the village owns a significant chunk of land on Madison, Lueck said spending all the TIF funds on streetscaping doesn't mean the village can't offer developers other incentives. Land, she stressed, is a major incentive in a land-locked village like Oak Park.

Lueck said the TIFs in Oak Park are not functioning the way they were designed, which she attributed to the economic collapse. Development halted and money wasn't going into the TIFs as anticipated. She suggested that there is data backing her theory of streetscaping, and she specifically referenced the economic return on Marion Street.

"It's a little bit of a mixed picture," she said. "There is a case that could be made that streetscaping is one tool that has the potential to lead to economic development."

Johnson said he wants the board to focus on economic development and turn its attention away from the "road diet," whether or not it's a phased plan or not. He wants to address the "big picture" and look toward public safety and then economic development.

"I've never believed [the road diet] was the best use of our dollars," Johnson said.

Moving past the economic development versus streetscape debate, another suggestion from the board was to tackle Madison is phased sections. Trustee Peter Barber was a big proponent of this and also suggested the board create a long-term vision for the street so the village can approach projects when financially able.

"It's the chicken and the egg. It's a great plan but we clearly don't have the money do it," Barber said. "There are ways at looking at this very differently. …It doesn't mean giving up the grand picture. …We have to do this within our means."

Overall, Barber wants money to be phased in while keeping some earmarked for developer financial incentives.

Abu-Taleb wrapped up comments, hitting his 9:30 p.m. deadline, and spoke about the history of this issue. He reminded the board the plan was created when President Bill Clinton was in his first term of office. Still, he thinks the village hasn't forgotten about addressing Madison Street.

"There is a sentiment out there that if this was downtown Oak Park, this would be going a lot faster," Abu-Taleb said. A few audience members shook their head in agreement. "We need to create certainty and an environment to attract businesses. …We need to pick an option that allows for us to develop the whole street. Then we can focus our attention on the portion of Madison that makes it so people come from other towns."

The meeting concluded after Village Manager Cara Pavlicek gave a rundown on what her staff will work on before coming back to the board. This includes: looking at possible packages for economic incentives through TIF funds, sales tax and rebates; following up on bike lane grants; reviewing possible phasing options; proceeding with a Request for Proposal (RFP) schedule and setting up talks between village staff and D97 staff to talk.

"This is a very important issue for stakeholders," Abu-Taleb said. "I urge staff to get the word out to neighbors. …It's going to be messy to hear from everyone but we want to hear from everyone. Let's keep people informed."

Email: Twitter: @AnnaLothson

Reader Comments

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Done from Oak Park  

Posted: August 1st, 2013 2:31 PM

"D97 officials have said they are open to reopening the TIF to allow for economic development in the community." So D97 is open to having their tax rates frozen for the next X number of years only a couple of years removed from describing doomsday in the form of needing a referendum in order to keep teachers and classroom sizes normal in our community? Repeat after me: "Do it for the children". And what will D97 do in a few years when pensions are still shortfunded? Cry "halt the TIF"?

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: August 1st, 2013 1:34 PM

Muntz - The simple answer is no, I do not have any hard evidence to make that an accusation. I was an active opponent of the Madison Housing Project. My view was that the project it self was weak. The critical issue was whether the village and board would actually study the pro's and con's of the project or avoid the discussion by treating it with kid gloves by making it strictly a zoning issue. I attended a Madison Steering Committee meeting when the General Director of the Oak Park Housing Authority (a member of the Madison Coalition and Steering Committee), was presenting the Oak Park Housing Authority. There were some question following the presentation and the General Director recused himself from the vote. The committee then had its discussion before the vote. One of the members asked how the village board would be handling the approval process. The steering committee chairman stated, "I had a discussion with David Pope and he assured me that the board would only address the zoning issues." The board then sent the issue to the Planning Commission with instructions that they were to address zoning issues only. The Plan Commission approved a wide range of exclusion for the project, sent it back to the board, and the project was approved. While there is no mention of chairman statement in the minutes, there were at least five village or partner agency representatives at the meeting that could confirm the statement. The link of the Madison Housing Project and the Madison Diet is an assumption on my part, but there is considerable information on and off the village records that support the assumption.


Posted: August 1st, 2013 9:49 AM

@JBM-Are you implying that this coalition approved the Grove development only because they thought their proposed road diet would be rubber stamped by the village in return?

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: August 1st, 2013 12:10 AM

Ginger Vanderveer - "You have a Madison Street Coalition who spent time/energy, met with businesses, etcetera - Why wouldn't you listen to the group that has already done all the research?" Fair question, for me it was am meeting of the coalition's steering committee in 2011 when it endorsed the Madison St. Housing Project (now Grove Apartments to be) without consideration of the fact that the project would generate no tax revenue for the village and was opposed by residents in the area. My view, perhaps wrong, was that giving support to the housing project was aligned with expected board support for the Road Diet and Streetscaping. The coalition threw away all there credibility that day.

Lizbeth Lemke from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 31st, 2013 9:54 PM

Removing vehicle lanes on Madison is a poor idea that was developed in a vacuum, with no thought given to the traffic impact on nearby east-west residential streets. The idea of spending close to $20 million on Madison, while ignoring the obvious detrimental effect of the project on traffic patterns in residential areas is offensive. A more modest streetscaping project makes better sense for multiple reasons.

25 year newcomer from Oak Park  

Posted: July 31st, 2013 1:14 PM

Forest Park has 1 main shopping area. Oak Parkers like to think we have 8 or more. Reality check - we don't have the residents to support businesses on Madison and Roosevelt and Harlem and Chicago and North Avenue and Lake St and Oak Park Ave and Marion St.. If we did, they wouldn't have left in the first place.

Jim Coughlin from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 31st, 2013 12:43 PM

Rather than suggesting that there is data to support her theory of streetscaping, Trustee Lueck should be willing to make that information readily available to the public. I have my doubts but would be interested in learning more about those reported findings. We have too many disappointing examples of the trustees approving a super duper package of improvements for business districts that have failed to deliver the bang for a buck that we were promised. I would also strongly urge Trustee Lueck to take a critical look at the effects that deferred maintenance and occasional patchwork repairs have had in many of Oak Park's neighborhood streets, alleys, curbing and sidewalks.

Paddy Boy  

Posted: July 31st, 2013 12:35 PM

It wouldn't hurt one bit to plant a few shamrocks now and then .... I'd like to see Danny boy complain about that .....

Ginger Vanderveer from Oak Park  

Posted: July 31st, 2013 12:16 PM

You have a Madison Street Coalition who spent time/energy, met with businesses, etcetera - why wouldn't you listen to the group that has already done all the research? Do we think the trustees are smarter than the group they entrusted to do the legwork? Congrats to Anan who was the most logical voice on the board on Monday night.


Posted: July 31st, 2013 12:10 PM

"The entire $17.7 million project calls for improving the corridor by ... removing the center landscape medians." I can't quite recall when the "center landscape medians" were installed, but wasn't that done with TIF? And, how much did it cost when it was done?

john murtagh from oak park  

Posted: July 31st, 2013 10:27 AM

The board has changed direction on Tif and streetscaping. That's a huge step and the right step. It is time for the village look at thirty years of Tif failures and find out why we failed when other communities succeeded. That means we have our board and staff team needs to reach out to other communities to find out how they attained success.


Posted: July 31st, 2013 8:45 AM

Let's be honest; bicycle lanes won't bring commerce to Madison Street. TIF is for capital improvements, like new water mains that will be needed to attract new development to the properties bordering Madison. Development equals commerce either by new businesses or increased assessed values. As far as the vacant car dealership, as a vacant building the owner (US Bank) claims an assessment reduction resulting in 10% of the taxes being collected. Is historic preservation preventing new use?

Oak Park Dad from Oak Park  

Posted: July 31st, 2013 7:49 AM

This article is really depressing. I understand that the board has no institutional memory and is not aware that past efforts to bring economic development back to Madison have failed. The Wednesday journal, however, should do better. Madison is simply not an attractive option for most businesses. That is exactly why the Madison Street Corridor Master Plan was adopted 7 years ago and the Altamanu Streetscape Project commissioned 2 years ago. We're just going around in circles ...

Virginia Seuffert from Oak Park  

Posted: July 30th, 2013 10:54 PM

Why not convert one of those jumbo buildings into a public market with concessions that actually draw people? Milwaukee's Public Market in the 3rd Ward is a great example.


Posted: July 30th, 2013 10:39 PM

@OPNow - Car dealerships tend to locate where other car dealerships are (see Schaumburg, Westmont, TP). But in that vain, how about a building that houses all "green" vehicles (hybrid, plug in, etc) from all manufacturers so folks shopping that sector can see all options under one roof. Maybe it's the cornerstone to brand Madison as "Green Street" and a place to get environmentally friendly products? Something / anything that differentiates us from other towns. That requires different thinking.


Posted: July 30th, 2013 10:19 PM

So we're putting all our eggs in the retail basket again? How about using Madison to attract non-retail yet increase foot traffic in the village for other retail zones? And somehow a standalone bike lane is going to draw bikers who want to go back and forth down a busy street, let alone businesses? The FP comparison isn't entirely accurate as there are 2 less lanes to contend with and the building setbacks are minimal and consistent west of Harlem. FP Madison East is not going to happen.

Madison Neighbor from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 30th, 2013 9:59 PM

@Anan - the neighbors have been talking to the board since well before the SRO was forced upon us. Only your predecessor listened. Those who spoke their opinions were labeled NIMBY's and publicly lectured by several trustees. If you want to listen now we'd still like to provide input, but realize that we've already been burned. Talk is cheap. You'll have to pardon my cynicism toward claims that the neighbors have any real impact on the future of Madison. Don't pour salt in the wounds.

KD from Oak Park  

Posted: July 30th, 2013 9:06 PM

I agree. Consult with our neighbor (Forest Park). That should help save lots of $. FP did a wonderful job of attracting businesses to the community with the parking & improvements made on Madison street. You build it, they will come...kudos to WAG on Madison & all the businesses who care enough to make improvements to their facades. OP, it's your turn to kick in


Posted: July 30th, 2013 7:48 PM

First thing that needs to be done is get rid of all of the hair and nail stores blighting the street. From Austin to Harlem, way too many of them. They are tacky, gaudy and garish. Secondly, something needs to be done with that giant building that used to be a car dealership but has been closed for years. Either tear the building down and develop it into condos (NOT housing projects....1 is enough) or try and bring in another car dealer life Fiat or Mini Cooper. Madison looks like east of Austin


Posted: July 30th, 2013 7:36 PM

Maybe more housing projects ala the Grove Street Project will do the trick! Yeah, that's the way to redevelop Madison Street!

Go west on Madison for a clue from Oak Park  

Posted: July 30th, 2013 5:10 PM

If Oak Park wasn't so ridiculously regulation heavy, if OP allowed liquor licenses in any sensible way, if we didn't get mired in years worth of committees over any simple decision, we'd have Madison street west of Harlem instead of the post-apocalyptic landscape we do have. If you want to figure out what to do with Madison street call Forest Park, they actually get things done.

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