By Anna Lothson
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."
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