Plan Commission meeting lacked respect

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By Lorraine Owles

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With apologies to Hamilton, I was "in the room where it happened," in this case, the village hall chamber on Aug. 10 where the Plan Commission held its fourth marathon meeting concerning Albion's proposal for an 18-story building at 1000 Lake St. 

Referencing Ken Trainor's column of July 26 [Don't maximize profit, maximize quality, Viewpoints] and my subsequent letter on Aug. 9 [Albion opposition has earned respect, Viewpoints], the opposition to this proposal earned respect at the Aug. 3 meeting, but "development supporters and village hall," or in this case, some members of the Plan Commission, did not show it. 

It started with the announcement that public testimony had officially been ended at the third meeting on Aug. 3, although commissioners knew very well that many people who had signed up on July 11 weren't there on the 3rd when they finally decided to allow citizen testimony (3½ weeks later). 

The lowest point for me was probably when Jan Arnold, park district executive director, was being cross-examined by Albion's lawyer about the four trees in Austin Gardens that had been toppled by winds since the Vantage was built. "Do you know the definition of the word 'anecdotal,' Ms. Arnold?" He thought he was setting up a "gotcha" moment. Instead, he came off as condescending and demeaning toward this well-qualified professional. Jan Arnold, with her B.S., M.S., MBA & CPRP, handled him with the same qualified and cool demeanor she has shown throughout these meetings. Bill McKenna, U. of Chicago Law grad, has been practicing for over 30 years. His firm, Foley & Lardner LLP, is high-powered and expensive. And a number of times, the park district attorney had to step in when Mr. McKenna tried to overstep legal questioning bounds, with Ms. Arnold; Tom Bassett-Dilley, solar architect who worked on the design of the new Environmental Center and did the Austin Gardens shade study; and the park district's turf manager, Travis Stevens. 

So park district people were fair game, but Mr. McKenna did not touch the park district's expert, Scott Stewart, who once headed Lurie Gardens and is now executive director of the Millennium Park Foundation and in charge of the entire Millennium Park and all that grows there. Respect for him (too prominent) but not extended to the park district folks. 

In questioning Ms. Arnold and Mr. Bassett-Dilley about their contention that the shade from Albion will reduce the yearly solar production of the Environmental Center by at least 10%, Mr. McKenna suggested that a possible solution would be for the park district to reduce the programming (and subsequent energy needs) at the center, a suggestion that drew very audible gasps from the audience. 

Mr. McKenna asked Ms. Arnold if it was true that the village manager had advised the park district awhile back not to put the Environmental Center and its solar panels in its current location. She responded that she did not recall ever having that conversation. Comm. Greg Marsey, directing to Mr. McKenna, asked how he could have known to pose that question. To not reveal perhaps how closely village "politics" has been working with Albion, Mr. McKenna quickly replied that one of his clients told him they had heard, but he personally had no knowledge of that fact. Nifty hearsay tactic to cast a shadow (pun intended) on our lovely Environmental Center.

Contention also came from some of the commissioners (esp. newly-appointed Glenn Brewer) when questioning park district people, but not the Albion VP, Andrew Yule, who got fairly easy treatment from the commission. When addressing concerns that had been brought up in previous meetings, the VP would often answer something like, "Yes, we can do that, but we didn't have enough time" to reflect the possible changes in new renderings. How much time does this multimillion $$ Dallas company need? 

Also, when one of the commissioners referenced the Aug. 3 testimony from Festival Theatre board members about the noise problem that is already coming from the Vantage/Cooper's Hawk restaurant and how this would be magnified with outdoor restaurant seating in the space directly south between 1010 Lake St. and the proposed Albion, the VP said that any restaurant settling there would be told that on performance evenings, they couldn't have anyone sitting outside, and later even added that would probably be only 10 or 15 days. 

Festival Theatre has 48 performance nights, and what restaurant in its right mind would agree to limit desirable outdoor evening seating Thursday thru Sunday during the prime months for outdoor dining? This is more of Albion's "OK, we can fix that" approach to give pleasing answers to commission concerns without fully understanding the consequences of their response.

But there was extensive questioning of why the park district would need, over a 10-year period, $280,000 in an escrow fund from Albion, to cover potential damage to Austin Gardens should this behemoth be built. Why should the Plan Commission even be concerned about the amount that was determined for the park district by the local landscape architect, Carol Yetken, who was in charge of the Austin Gardens renovation? Is it the Plan Commission's job to negotiate lower costs for Albion? 

After Mr. McKenna's failed attempt to discredit Jan Arnold concerning the fallen trees, Comm. Brewer decided to question her himself, wanting to know if she had exact data of wind speeds when the trees fell and if she understood and had actually ever experienced a 55 mph wind. More audience gasps. But Ms. Arnold once again handled the questions well and reminded the commission one more time that Chris Lindgren, supt. of Buildings & Grounds, was actually in Austin Gardens when two of the trees fell. 

At the end of the meeting, when Chairman Mann mentioned they had received another petition with 1,700 names against, 190 emails against, and 14 in support, Comm. Brewer, to the astonishment of the rest of the commission and the audience, posed the question of how they can really be sure that those emails actually came from people in Oak Park and not from "outsiders" trying to sway opinion. To their credit, the other seven commissioners (one was absent) refused to bite on that one and proceeded to set the next meeting dates, Tuesdays (not the usual Thursdays) Aug. 22 and Aug. 29. 

Is this like Kurosawa's Rashomon, just my version of what transpired on Aug. 10? I suggest citizens view the online video for themselves. I still believe that the opposition to the Albion proposal is not getting the full respect it has clearly earned. I also encourage citizens to attend the next meeting or send their thoughts to the volunteer Plan Commission via email, planning@oak-park.us, or regular mail c/o of Village Planner Craig Failor, liaison to the Commission, 123 Madison St., Oak Park, IL 60302. They really want to hear from you.

Lorraine Owles is a resident of Oak Park.

Reader Comments

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Jim Coughlin  

Posted: August 17th, 2017 6:05 PM

Brewer is a parrot and spews whatever nonsense is fed to him by Abu-Taleb.

Adrian Ayres Fisher  

Posted: August 17th, 2017 5:58 PM

Excellent reporting. It really was almost shocking to watch and listen to the lawyer's tactics and supercilious tone. Kudos to Park District staff. Also, the "adjustments" Albion offered were inadequate to say the least. Looking forward (?) to the next meeting.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: August 17th, 2017 4:28 PM

So now the sound of adults quietly munching on a meal a half block away is a threat to the park? Oh the horror of it all.

Christine Vernon  

Posted: August 17th, 2017 12:13 PM

Lorraine, it is such a good thing we are so fortunate to read your excellent reporting on the Plan Commission meeting re Albion on August 10th.. Starting with "...the announcement that public testimony had officially been ended at the third meeting on Aug. 3"... typical repression of opposition testimonials that was for years characteristic of Oak Park Village Boards of old, so reminiscent of life under 60+ years of VMA rule where the Plan Commission and Village Board routinely created an adversarial relationship with resident/taxpayers because there was an agenda in the works that was VMA driven and pre-decided. During the Stankus era in the '70s (BC Before I had Children), I attended every major Board meeting for six years, Village Board, Plan Commission, Zoning Board, Environmental Advisory Board, Park Board...what a colossal waste of time. They approved and passed the Stankus project in its many heights, time and time again, with utter disregard for public opinion, much like what is happening now with Albion. HUD that stopped the project. Sometimes, miraculously, right will just find a way! Glen Brewer must be a VMA holdover. He so perfectly fits the mold of condescension and championing the outsider proposal instead of respectfully listening to a resident expert on life in Oak Park,. Good for Jan Arnold that she was able to withstand Lawyer McKenna's aggressive and hostile demeanor, sorry to think of any citizen being treated in such an insulting and crappy way.. Can't wait until our Boards and Commission are purged of people with the old patronizing "We know what's best for you!" VMA attitude of the past, some people would have done away with Board meetings altogether if they could have because citiizens so often inconvenienced them with their desire for democracy! To be fair and balanced, the VMA did do some good things which I have written about in the past, but the Plan Commission meeting of August 10th was a perfect example of a classic VMA fail.

David Gulbransen  

Posted: August 17th, 2017 10:44 AM

Hey: Comm. Brewer, *my* email comes from a resident and voter in Oak Park. You can kiss any vote from me in any of your future endeavors goodbye. Perhaps you'd do better to *listen* to the *citizens* speaking out against this: not just in email, but at your Commission meetings, on Social Media, and in person events around the Village. Or, you know, kowtow to a developer from Dallas with $$$. We know the score.

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